Thursday, February 28, 2013

On Loving and Simultaneously Coveting Your Neighbor

Something I read this morning reminded me of something I read quite some time ago, a description of something that author had himself read. I wrote about it in my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, so it's entirely possible you read it from me. I'll reprint it here for your convenience.

***

Limitless factors contribute to how our inner unsettledness manifests in our outward life, just as countless external catalysts force us to decide how other people will influence us--the scripts that over time have burrowed their way into our subconscious, the degrees of complexity our various relationships have taken on, the amount of responsibility or pressure we're carrying as an extension of the power or status or wealth we've acquired for ourselves. Jean Vanier recognizes the complexity of this internal process and the inevitability of its impact on how we relate to others. "There is an endless list of those we may exclude," he observes, and we might add those we may insult or demean or patronize or otherwise offend; "every one of us, we may be sure, is on someone's list."

Brian Mahan suggests that our compassion--our capacity to care for other people--is inhibited by our ambitions, "setting limits on the reach and intensity of fellow-feeling." He recalls a thought experiment created by Walker Percy to illustrate this awkward psychosocial negotiation. The experiment is predicated on your run-in with your neighbor Charlie, who you've known to be very sick. "You look at him sympathetically" but then notice that he doesn't appear concerned or even unhealthy; he looks genuinely happy as he approaches you. "He has triple good news. His chest ailment turned out to be a hiatal hernia, not serious. He's got a promotion and is moving to Greenwich, where he can keep his boat in the water rather than on a trailer." So how do you feel? Percy gives you two options: (1) You feel unequivocally happy for your neighbor, or (2) you're happy for him but suddenly feel a little less happy for yourself. Those who picked the second option are given a continuum of seven choices to describe "which of the following news . . . would make you feel better." The options range from your neighbor dropping dead on the spot to your saving your neighbor's life from a runaway garbage truck careening toward him. The spoiler answer is the seventh, in which you're generally happy, your neighbor is generally happy, and all of a sudden the city off in the distance is leveled by an earthquake, and only you and your neighbor have survived. Percy sums up the experiment: "In a word, how much good news about Charlie can you tolerate without compensatory catastrophies, rescues, and such?"

***

Percy's experiment is recounted in Brian Mahan's excellent book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose.

Jean Vanier's excellent insight is found in his book Becoming Human.

Question: How do you gauge and otherwise control covetousness in your life?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns, Part Three: Building Coalitions

No man is an island. No book is a solo effort. No movement is an isolated incident.

Much noise has been made in recent years about "tribes." Broadcasting is out; narrowcasting is in. Affinity groups are the new mass market. Even the notion of platform, the subject of this series (see the first three entries here, here and here), functions on the underlying assumption that you can't please everyone, so you'll have to find people who are pleased when you please yourself. Or something like that.

The object of the game, in book publishing and other celebrity-based industries, has been to identify a group and climb to the top of it. There's a certain type of person who considers James Franco, for example, the greatest actor of his generation. Lady Gaga has assembled millions of "little monsters" to sit at her feet. In my field, Christian publishing, there are John Piper Christians, Rick Warren Christians, Rob Bell Christians and Joel Osteen Christians, proof positive that white men aren't entirely homogenous. (Well, maybe not proof positive . . .) Such huddled masses need leaders, and these folks and their equivalents in other demographics have seen the opportunity and taken it.

The problem with celebrity is that it's unsustainable. I've had recent gossipy conversations about people who have "left their platform," either by choice or under duress, and whose cultural power dissipated almost overnight as a result. "The phone stops ringing," my friends lamented on behalf of our other friends; that's what happens when a musician dares to experiment with another genre, or an actor makes one too many inaccessible films, or when an author or speaker or otherwise celebrated cultural leader ventures beyond the acceptable scope of their cultural leadership. We are past the age of tyrants, after all; we enjoy whatever platform we have by the consent of the governed.

The consent of the governed, in the case of cultural celebrity, is especially fickle. And so even when we do everything right--when we play by all the rules in Michael Hyatt's book Platform--our platform can collapse underneath us. In a free market economy there's always someone, something around the corner waiting to shove us off our perch, vying to capture the imagination of our tribe. For every iPhone there's a Galaxy waiting in the wings; for every Lady Gaga a Ke$ha; for every Prayer of Jabez a Your Best Life Now. We find out quickly, tragically, that whatever love we felt from our audience was actually only lust. We thought we heard them say, "I will always love you," but in reality they had only promised "Here we are; now entertain us."

Celebrity is unsustainable not only thanks to these external factors--the loss of lofty position or the abandonment of your audience--but also thanks to what celebrity costs. Platform can be all-consuming, leaving precious little emotional energy or even chronological time to devote to more homespun, mundane things like maintaining a relationship with your spouse or your kids, your parents or your siblings, your friends and neighbors. Even your vocation--the presumed touchpoint between you and your tribe--competes for your attention with your platform. You can be so busy telling other how they can change the world like you did that changing the world becomes the lowest priority on your to-do list.

When platform is understood through the lens of celebrity, everybody loses. Three of the four Gospel writers report these wise words of Jesus: "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" In retrospect, as we watch modernity wind down, we are forced to ask also, What good is it for the world?

A postmodern platform must learn some hard lessons from the unsustainability of the modernist, celebrity-based platform. These lessons are hard because they involve the ego, and our egos don't like to learn lessons. But here's the essence of it: In a postmodern world, building an isolated, individual platform is a waste of time. The logic doesn't play out. Instead of building platforms for themselves, postmoderns who have a message or a vision they want broadly disseminated should concentrate on building coalitions.

A coalition is like a union. Like-minded people recognize that their common goals can be more efficiently accomplished, their voices better heard, if they speak in unison and stand together. Their common goals are discovered together rather than dictated from a single leader; their leaders are, in fact, designated from below as being particularly equipped to carry their message to the halls of power. A coalition can change things were an individual can't.

Most platforms under the modern paradigm are already coalitions, to be honest. Hyatt acknowledges in his book the team that stands behind the coherence and volume of his message, from editors and designers to administrative assistants and the like. Read the acknowledgments in any book and you'll see that it takes a village to raise an individual's voice. What's been obscured in that approach to coalition building is that the various players in any platform are there voluntarily; in a free society, in a free market economy, they can always stop doing what they're doing, and go do something else. Even some of the members of these modernist villages don't realize how free they are, how much of their freedom they've surrendered to the agenda of the person they've placed on a platform.

But a real coalition is communal all the way down. Each individual participant is there voluntarily and knows it; they've not only embraced a vision but contributed to it, in meaning and money and sweat equity. Therein lies the value: the platform is the thing that people have built; the message is part of the infrastructure of the medium by which it is amplified. The audience is already invested--not just enough to consume the message but to repeat it, to become ambassadors for it. The platform's viability is liberated from celebrity and grounded in a communal vision.

Coalition building is how governments work; it's how unions work; it's how movements work. Coalition building is how anything with longevity works. When Jesus began his public ministry, he didn't build a website; he built relationships with twelve people whose priorities overlapped but occasionally clashed. He traveled with them, ate with them, talked about grand ideas with them. By the time of his crucifixion they recognized that they were just as vulnerable to the hostility of the state and the religious authorities as he was, so they hid in an upper room. By the time of his ascension they recognized that they were just as responsible for the propagation of Jesus' message as he was, and so they went about doing greater things than Jesus did (John 14:12) and millennia later his followers are still delivering Jesus' message to the ends of the earth.

How do you build coalitions? It takes time--time to understand your own priorities and subject them meaningfully to the priorities of like-minded others, so together you can arrive at something that all involved can invest themselves in. It takes humility--a willingness to recognize that you're not the only person who cares about your subject matter, not the only source of good ideas. It takes mutuality and graciousness--a willingness to share stages and ideas and not worry so much about credit. It takes great self-awareness of both your potential and your limits, and it takes the courage to push yourself on both.

The payoff is really good. You'll have a platform that not only you but people you admire and trust can stand on and deliver an important message to the world. You'll have a dedicated space that is maintained not by force of individual will but by aggregation of great people. You'll be able to dispense with all the artifice and soul-sucking loneliness that comes with a celebrity-based understanding of platform. And you'll make a lot of friends and share a lot of love.

Some well-built coalitions I like and see great potential in:

Red Letter Christians
The Parish Collective
Forge Missions Training Network
The New Monasticism
Missio Alliance
Christian Community Development Association

There are others, of course, and you're welcome to mention those you like here. But the main idea is this: You are wasting your energy and subverting your message if you go it alone. The age of celebrity is dying and needs to be allowed to die. A better future will come as people marry their messages to the messages of others, and platform becomes not a proprietary place for individuals but shared space for great ideas.

Keep checking back for more thoughts on platform for postmoderns.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns, Part Two: Establishing Authority

If you want to build a platform, you must first plant a tree . . .

Why do we listen to the people we listen to? Why do we give them our attention? Our money? Why do we make commitments to them?

Some might chalk it up to charisma--the man or woman who can win hearts can sell them anything. This seems to explain, for example, Justin Bieber. Arguably it also explains people like Adolf Hitler, but that is by no means a statement on my part about the man who gave us "Baby, Baby, Baby." (See my other caveats regarding this series of posts here.)

Such "great man" theories are part of American mythology--and they are at least partially rooted in lived experience. People like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X captivated people's imaginations and caused them to see the world dramatically differently. People like Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks launched national conversations and cultural movements through single, powerful symbolic words ("Ain't I a woman?!?") and acts (the refusal to yield a bus seat, in violation of an unjust local ordinance). I take nothing away from the vision or the accomplishments of people whose lives are so illustrious.

But to characterize these people as nothing more than a few words, a few moments, or even a charismatic presence is not only to diminish their significance; it is to disregard the much larger, much more challenging work that undergirded their public efforts and dramatically amplified their impact. Sojourner Truth confronted the incipient racism of pre-Civil-War America from the dais of a rally for women's suffrage. She was given a voice in a movement she helped to build; and her particular contribution can only be fully understood in that larger context. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were compelling public figures, yes, but they were also tireless, passionate participants in a broad, organized and strategic movement to reimagine human dignity in a supposedly free society. Rosa Parks, who was my age at the time of her arrest, did in fact make a spontaneous decision to resist, but it was an informed spontaneity; she was active in the local chapter of the NAACP, and such individual acts of nonviolent resistance were, while not yet commonplace, relatively regular occurrences. Her network made the strategic determination that her act of resistance, unlike the others, would give them the momentum to make discrimination a national conversation.

I'm an editor of Christian nonfiction books. That's what I do. I'm also an author; that's more what I'd like to do, as much as possible. I'd like steadily increasing numbers of people tuning in to what I have to say about the topics of my choosing. I want to be known as an author, which is to say that I want to be granted authority.

That's what all these folks, from Justin Bieber to Sojourner Truth, had: authority. They spoke or sang or acted; people listened, danced and were transformed. Some might argue that these folks were inherently "great men" or "great women," that the universe cooked up their strand of DNA special because the times demanded them. Others would argue that they each had a "wow" product--they had developed a sound or vision that, once shared, everyone would embrace. I would argue instead that each participated--even gave their lives to--something that in response gave them the platform needed to be heard, respected and embraced. For Bieber, that was first pop sensation Usher and then Usher's infrastructure, which eventually included Island Records and their distribution and promotional engines. For Sojourner Truth, it was the abolitionist organization NAEI, which put her in contact with such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. For Martin Luther King it was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; for Malcolm X it was the Nation of Islam. For Adolf Hitler, tragically, it was the government of Germany.

Authority is not inherent; it is earned and organized. Gravitas, charisma and vision are, perhaps, part of the interior makeup of a person, but authority is a social contract. Such has always been the case, though we've only been conscious of it since the dawn of democracy; the U.S. Declaration of Independence codified the concept when it declared that "Governments are instituted among Men" for the sole purpose of administering and protecting fundamental human rights, and that such governmental authority is derived "from the consent of the governed."

All authority is granted authority; all authority is vested with the interests of those who sit under that authority. King, X, Truth and Parks are great in our imagination because we wanted them, because we invited them, to be great. Justin Bieber has achieved such enormous success because enough people set him on a stage and told him, "Here we are; now, entertain us."

I write all this to say that a platform is not an overnight phenomenon, nor is it the inevitable outcome of one "wow" idea. An idea is not a means to the end of a platform; a platform is a means to the end of further disseminating a wow idea.

We listen to people--we give them our time, our attention, our money--and make commitments to them because we want to, plain and simple. And we want to because we determine that what they are putting forward is good, credible, true, right. And especially in a postmodern setting, where the hubris of modernity is a matter of historical record, where egregious abuses of authority have been on display at all levels, where the consent of the governed is still forcefully contested by tyrannical regimes--especially in the world we find ourselves in, we grant people authority carefully, begrudgingly. In a postmodern setting, you simply have to earn it.

How do you earn it? You demonstrate the credibility of your proposition. You don't declare your idea to be a "wow"; you test it and refine it and ask questions of it and trash it and start over. You devote yourself to your idea, your sound, your vision, and you submit yourself to the earned authority of others. You let yourself be instructed by Usher about what sounds good, what compels the imagination of a pop music audience, because Usher has himself already devoted himself to the question. You collaborate and brainstorm with people who like you have been compelled by a similar wow idea, and you test the validity of your idea on the streets where it must survive. You give yourself to the idea, and then you ask others whether it's something that they can give themselves to as well. But whether they do or they don't, you have decided and resolved that the idea is worth what it demands of you.

You also recognize that you don't command the respect of an audience simply by having an idea. Postmodernity is a buyer's market: sovereignty lies not with those who have enough military, makeup or marketing money to force their wow idea on us; sovereignty lies with us. By offering your wow idea, your wow product, to a wider audience, you are making both a commitment and a request: "This thing that I have, I think is worth you giving yourself to. I may be wrong, but would you consider what it would mean for you if I'm right?"

In this respect, a postmodern platform is like a demonstration plot. In farming, new ideas are dangerous. A family farm might be put out of business forever after one bad year trying one wrong-headed idea. So new ideas in farming are tested via demonstration plots, where new seed is planted or new techniques are employed in space where other farmers can come and investigate for themselves. They can see the impact on the soil, on the surrounding land. They can taste the quality of the end product. They can touch and smell and otherwise measure the impact of the idea on display. And those farmers can decide for themselves just how "wow" the idea is.

This, then, is the new shape of authority: it is requested, not imposed; it is tested, not assumed; it is rooted in credible experience, not in divine right or cultural mythology. Authority is established over time, at the end of hard work. If you want to build a platform, you'll need to build it by the sweat of your own brow, from the wood of your own making. That means, if you want to build a platform, first you have to plant a tree.

I've written elsewhere on authority. Check it out here.

Next up, building coalitions. But till then . . .

Why do you listen to the people you listen to?

What do you need to see in order to commit yourself to an idea?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns, Part One and a Half

Welcome to Loud Time. If you read part one of this series and you came back to see who I'm going to vilify today, I apologize for setting the bar so low in my first post. I came into this series not to bury baby boomers--especially those who have framed our expectations for how we make our messages known--but to begin an inquiry into how the rest of us can be ourselves in the emerging environment we find ourselves in, and yet still make contact with steadily increasing numbers of people with the message we think they need to hear. In other words, I came into this series to give all of us a place to talk about platform for postmoderns.

If that sounds good to you, welcome to part one and a half, wherein I offer some caveats.

Here's what I'm not saying.

I'm not saying that I've cracked the code for building a fool-proof platform. If you're looking for a short cut to material success, keep looking.

I'm not saying (specifically in my previous post) anything of any kind about Mike Hyatt's character. I'm sure he's a great guy, and there's much of value in his writing. My critique of the modernist cult of platform is not an attack on people but a critique of the game, the rules of which both Hyatt and I have had to play by on a daily basis by virtue of working in a platform-dependent industry, the rules of which all too often we accept uncritically.

I'm also not saying that postmodernity is inherently more virtuous than modernity. Narcissism, materialism, isolation and dehumanization are not in and of themselves artifacts of an era; in my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville I argue in fact that cultural narcissism is central to the human story, and isolation and dehumanization are among its byproducts. Getting a message out effectively and with integrity continues to be a challenge in this postmodern age, and more particularly so by virtue of the lingering dominance of modernist assumptions about the world.

I'm also not saying that baby boomers are bad people, or past their prime, or anything like that. Some of my favorite people are baby boomers. I was feeling snarky when I wrote that stuff. Sorry.

I'm also not saying that what I'll be discussing in this series is purely postmodern in its entirety. I'm not a trained philosopher, so I'd be quickly out of my depth if I tried to explain the breadth of contemporary thought and the thinking that it's gradually supplanting. Neither am I an anthropologist, so I'd be wasting my time and yours to try to paint a precise portrait of the postmodern cultural shift. "Postmoderns" is, for the purposes of this series, a convenient catch-all, with a nice alliterative garnish.

Insert additional caveats here.

Here's what I want: I want to develop and implement a perspective on platform that honors what we've come to recognize as weaknesses in the structures and systems of modernity. I want to explore a strategy for message-building that is more communal, more participatory, more resistant to the problems I identified in my previous post. Mostly, I want to figure out how to amplify the voices and extend the reach of my friends who are themselves "postmodern," who have messages and visions that merit broad adoption and who would feel and look ridiculous dedicating inordinate time to head shots, web optimization and other platform vanities--who would, in fact, by doing so be distracted from their important work.

Some of what I develop here will be a critique of how postmoderns are currently developing and advancing their messages. There may well be points along the way where they could stand to be more modernist, or where they're putting their energies in things that are ultimately self-indulgent rather than message-enhancing. I will, of course, share my own experiences both of wasting energy and of desperately promoting myself and losing myself in the process. When it comes to the platform game, in the words of Thomas Merton, "the human race . . . is no more and no less ridiculous than myself."

Final caveat: I don't actually know what I'm talking about. My success in building a platform (as conventionally understood) is a mixed bag. I've had three books (two and a fifth, if you go by word count) published conventionally, and I've contributed to a few more. I've had a regular column at a longstanding web magazine for a few years now, and I frequently contribute pieces to a variety of print and online media. I regularly get invited to speak at a variety of events; I have a high friend count, a growing follower count and a decent Klout score. But my books sales have been nowhere near bestsellers, my speaking engagements are generally modest, and I'm often not paid for what I write or what I say. I have a full-time job; my writing and speaking are not by any stretch my primary means of self-support.

That, I think, is my first plank in a postmodern platform. When I was raising funds (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to help build a network of youth ministries, I decided that if I really think something is important, if it's really worth doing, then it's worth doing for free. It's also worth getting paid to do, of course; but your passion has value that extends well beyond the marketplace. We live in a world that is paradoxically drowning in opportunity and incredibly limiting. Hundreds of thousands of people audition every year to be the one American Idol. Anyone can publish a book at any given moment, and that book immediately gets lost in the pile of half a million other new books. The entire thing is absurd, and we're all indulging in the absurdity. The empire has no clothes. The first rule of platform for postmoderns? There is no platform.

OK, enough caveats. On with the series. Next up (I think): If you want to build a platform, first you must plant a tree. In the meantime . . .

What are you hoping I cover in this series on platform for postmoderns?

What caveats have I missed?

Share some of your frustrating experiences in your attempt to build a platform for yourself. Go ahead--it's a safe place.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Deliver Us from Me-Ville: A Reading Plan for Lent

Last fall some 13,000 people downloaded my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville when my publisher made it available for free. I take a kind of perverse pride in that, which is ironic given that (a) I had nothing to do with it, (b) downloading a book for free is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the content and (c) the book is about the potential perversity of pride. In any case, I was glad to see that some more people were getting exposed to the book. If you were one of those 13,000+ people, thanks. If you weren't, you can still get it for cheap here. Or contact me at david dot a dot zimmerman at hotmail dot com, and I'll give you a special deal on a hard copy.

If you're like me, though, an impulsively downloaded book can sit on your virtual bookshelf for months, even years, unread. That's a shame, since books are literally meant to be read. Fortunately, Lent is upon us, and as some friends of mine have demonstrated, Deliver Us from Me-Ville makes for good Lenten reading. So here's the invitation: follow the reading plan below (prepared by my friend Fred Nelson, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran in Park Ridge, Illinois), and hit me with whatever questions or comments you have along the way, and I will be your Lenten reading buddy. I'm not going to read the book myself; that would be hopelessly vain. But I'll accompany you on your reading, and maybe together we can discern more fully what life outside of Me-Ville is meant to look like for us.

The reading plan refers to subheads, not page numbers, since more people have the book in digital form than in print. When you see a subhead below (e.g., "through 'It's Easy for Me,'"), read it to its completion (i.e., stop reading, for example, when you come to "Red Carpet Treatment").

***

Week 1: The High Cost of Living in Me-Ville
 Wednesday: "Don't be so sure of yourself!" through "Runaway Pride"
 Thursday: "Me-Ville" through end of introduction
 Friday: "I got married recently" through "Superbia = Self-Absorption"
 Saturday: "Out of Eden and into Me-Ville" through "It's Easy for Me"
 Sunday: "Red Carpet Treatment" through end of chapter
 Monday: "Escape Routes"
 Tuesday: Day off

Week 2: Jesus Visits Us in Me-Ville
 Wednesday: "Sometimes, I willingly confess" through "Everywhere I Want to Be"
 Thursday: "The Great Cloud of Uncaring" through "He Parted the Heavens"
 Friday: "My Private Universe" through "The Sum of Ourselves"
 Saturday: "Jesus Honors and Threatens Us by His Visit" through "Jesus Is Pro-Me"
 Sunday: "Myspace--Christ's Home Page" through end of chapter
 Monday: :Escape Routes"
 Tuesday: Day off

Week 3: Jesus Displaces Us
 Wednesday: "Sometimes the things you desire" through "We Can't Save Ourselves or Fulfill Ourselves"
 Thursday: "Jesus Takes His Stand" through "Stop Being Rich, Stop Being Young, Stop Being a Ruler"
 Friday: "Christ the Center" through "Jesus Is Homeless and Invites Us to Follow"
 Saturday: "Psalms to the Center" through end of chapter
 Sunday: "Escape Routes"
 Monday: Day off
 Tuesday: Day off

Week 4: Jesus Delivers Us
 Wednesday: "So now we're on the road" through "Tax-Exempt Status"
 Thursday: "Superbian Spirituality"
 Friday: "Self-Effacement and the Knowledge of God"
 Saturday: "Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose"
 Sunday: "Agere Contra" through end of chapter
 Monday: "Escape Routes"
 Tuesday: Day off

Week 5: Jesus Binds Us Together
 Wednesday: "Read the Gospel of John closely enough" through "Every Christian Is Bound to Every Other"
 Thursday: "Stranded in We-Ville"
 Friday: "Jesus Stands Between Us"
 Saturday: "Beware Yourself and One Another"
 Sunday: "We Need Each Other"
 Monday: "Escape Routes"
 Tuesday: Day off

Week 6: Getting in the Way of Jesus
 Wednesday: "And really, that's pretty much it" through "Taking Vows Without Taking Them Too Seriously"
 Thursday: "Sinning Boldly and Failing Well" through "Jesus or Not Jesus"
 Friday: "Quiet Time" through "Loud Time"
 Saturday: "What's in a Day" through "Marking Time"
 Sunday: "Escape Routes: Quiet Time"
 Monday: "Escape Routes: Interrupted Quiet Time"
 Tuesday: "Escape Routes: Loud Time"
 Wednesday: Day off

 Maundy Thursday: "When Jesus' followers wondered how to pray" through "Shut Up and Pray"
 Good Friday: "So Be It"
 Holy Saturday: "Escape Routes"

Easter Sunday: Your Next Step Awaits!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns, Part One

I recently finished reading Platform by Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson, the massive Christian publishing house recently purchased by the even massiver mainstream publishing house Harper Collins. Hyatt is a popular blogger (#6 on the top 100 Christian leaders to follow on Twitter!); he's popular mainly because of his liberality and insight as he pulls back the curtain on contemporary publishing. I've not met him, but I find him pretty entertaining and often insightful.

I'm reading Platform because everyone in the universe should, if you take some of my friends in the publishing industry seriously. This is the secret sauce, the magic bullet, the one thing standing between you and publishing success. Except it's not.

Don't get me wrong. I suspect that Platform has in fact been quite helpful to a number of people, and I know that it is, more or less, the paradigm practiced by a great number of highly successful authors. (Full disclosure: I've employed some of his suggestions in this very post.) But almost from page one it didn't ring true to me, and I think I've figured out why.

Platform is built on a paradox: you need a platform to get people to want your message or your product; you need a message or product that people want in order to build a platform. Hyatt downplays this paradoxical nature of platform, though, paying lip service to the "wow product" that your platform demands and concentrating instead on a platform's apparatus. Ignoring the paradox, he dives in head first to head shots and other purely pragmatic elements of the game. He parses out the gnats of platform, if you will, and swallows the camel in the process. This failure to wrestle with the paradox, even to acknowledge it, sets the whole book on the wrong course for me.

The underlying assumption of Platform is that you are the CEO of You, Inc., purveyor of You,tm the product. You move product by executing your marketing plan, which is you, and you are aided in your efforts by the work you've done to build your brand, which is you, and to establish your platform, which is everyone else.

This sounds narcissistic, and in a technical sense I suppose it is. But only as a means to an end: you are passionate about your message or product--so passionate that you identify yourself entirely with it--and you know that in a world with seven billion similarly passionate purveyors of product, it's going to take a little narcissism to break out of the pack. The problem with this perspective on platform, as I see it, isn't narcissism. (That's significant, since narcissism is my shtick, and you would think that in service to my own platform I would make narcissism the problem with Hyatt's.) The problem as I see it is the lingering modernism in Hyatt's paradigm, and all its attendant assumptions.

First of all, there's a fundamental sense of isolation in this understanding of platform. We are necessarily the center of our universe, all Hyatt's affirmation of the Audience notwithstanding. If we aren't the center, our brand and our mission suffer, so to build a platform we must increasingly interpret the world as revolving around us. We don't have the luxury of friends, even peers; all other individuals are either tools or threats to our success. They may teach us or train us, they may do our accounting or design our websites or edit our tweets. They may compete for our customers or distract us from our mission. But they're not whole persons in and of themselves; they're orbiting our life, never coming to a landing in it. Wherever our platform is, under Hyatt's paradigm, it's a lonely place.

Second, there's a fundamental dehumanization in the embrace of such an understanding of platform. We aren't free to be human beings, with all our frailties. There's no rest in the construction of a platform, and there's not one inch of the entire landscape about which the brand does not cry out, "This is mine!" We tell our stories not because we need to be known but because our stories may move product or mobilize people on our behalf. We don't confess failure; we convert it into a talking point that reinforces our main point. We don't admit need because our platform always beckons; our show must always go on.

Finally, there's a frustrating materialism inherent in the modernist logic of platform as laid out in Hyatt's book. Success is measured by moved product, by hits and likes and shares and retweets and measurable metrics. The platform ultimately becomes all there is; it subsists entirely on itself. Seventeen chapters into the book Hyatt acknowledges without irony that "these days I find myself increasingly speaking on the topic of social media, because I am a blogger who has fed the growth of my blog's audience--and, therefore, the size of my platform--through social media." After all the advice about head shots and media kits and pit crews and branding tools, it really comes down to this: Hyatt's platform is based almost entirely on his expertise on building platform. There is no reality outside it; the platform is all there is.

I will set aside the oddness of this isolating, dehumanizing, materialist and narcissistic enterprise being championed by an undisputed global leader in cultural evangelicalism. (Hyatt is #6 on a recent list of top Christian leaders to follow on Twitter. I ranted about the list here. For an interesting lament on the dominance of evangelical publishing like Hyatt's Thomas Nelson in American Christian culture, from one of his peers in the Harper Industrial Complex, read this.) For now, I'm most interested in the shelf life of the paradigm Hyatt lays out in his book.

Modernity is, like Baby Boomers, winding down; its cultural dominance lies more in its long tenure than in its sustainability into the future. Like Baby Boomers, modernity still works, but it tires easily, and it struggles to make sense of the new realities springing up all around it. As generally helpful as Platform is, the platform Hyatt proposes in it is, in fact, a crumbling edifice. It'll hold for a while, but it will eventually break down without warning.

Meanwhile, pushing up through its cracking foundation is, I believe, an approach to getting your message out that is more fitted to the future, more informed by postmodern sensibilities. I'll start to paint that picture in a forthcoming post, where I have no doubt that I will give it a pollyannish gloss. So I welcome all my friends who are Hyatt apologists or happy modernists, now and in the weeks to come, to sharpen their pencils and ready their critiques. Let's start with this:

* Where do you think I'm being unfair in my critique of Hyatt's Platform?

* What did you get out of the book that's helped you get your message out?

Friday, February 08, 2013

Does the Pope Tweet in the Woods? Does Anyone Hear It?

Well, if you've been wondering who to follow on Twitter, and you're a Christian, look no further than this list. ChurchLeaders.com has compiled a list of the top 100 Christian leaders to follow on Twitter. News flash: I'm not on it.

News flash: neither is the pope. The pope.

I count fifteen women, nine people of color (one of whom is one of the fifteen women), two Osteens and one organization among the top Christian leaders. (Matthew Paul Turner got a different number: seven men of color and nine women; he's #27 on the list, so we should all probably take his word for it.) The organization that is among the top 100 Christian leaders is "Grace to You," which is a ministry of pastor John MacArthur. Marketing guru Seth Godin is on the list as well, which has called the question from a number of people: "Seth Godin is a Christian?" He may well be, but that's not how he's made his mark on the world.

Here's how you make the cut: "In general, the rating system we used took into account the number of followers, the power of followers and the number of updates—with a little common sense added in for good measure." I don't know what "the power of followers" is meant to suggest, but it may be an aggregate of Klout scores or number of circles on Google+. If I find out I'll report back. However the math works, it puts Joel Osteen on top; nomadic second-string quarterback Tim Tebow rounds out the list at #100.

We're not given a sample tweet from each person (or entity) on the list; we're not even technically given the leader's name. We're only told the Twitter handle and how many followers each Twitter account has--as well as how many people they follow. I find that part interesting: Bill Hybels, for example (@BillHybels), #10 on the list, is followed by 117,363 people, but he himself only follows six: Lynne Hybels, Nicholas Kristoff, Michael E. Porter, Jim Mellado, Shauna Nyquist and Jack Welch. (I follow two of his six.) He currently has under 300 tweets; here's a sample:

I'll be honest: none of his tweets is striking me as can't miss--none, in fact, lived up to the article's promise of "bold and provocative quotes and pithy one-liners, ... helpful links, how-tos and news." I went twenty or so tweets deep before I moved on.

I don't mention this out of disrespect for Bill Hybels; I actually hold him in pretty high regard. He was my pastor for about eight years, and he once gave me directions to a Willow Creek bathroom. But I sort of think that "a little common sense" would have striven for some greater diversity; Christianity is a big tent, a global enterprise. More nonevangelicals, More non-Americans, more nonwhites, more nonmen--these inclusions wouldn't have just been politically correct; they would have been intellectually honest.

At the very least, shouldn't the list have included Pope Benedict, who made worldwide news on December 12 when he opened his Twitter account (@Pontifex)? I admit he has fewer tweets (currently 33) than many of the list, but he has more than a million followers (on Twitter; the number of followers at Sunday morning mass is, uh, slightly higher). Maybe the power of each follower is exceptionally low. I'm one of his Twitter followers, so the case could be made for that.

Here's a sample tweet from His Holiness:

The pope follows eight people on Twitter. News flash: I'm not one of them.

All this to say, I found this list annoying, and I needed to vent about it. How about you?

Am I making too big a deal of this? Why?

Who would you add to the list? Why?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

30 Rock Is Dead! Community Is Alive! Corporations Are People! People Are Sheep!

Last Thursday marked the end of 30 Rock, one of my favorite TV shows. Tonight Community, after a loooooong hiatus, is back on screen. NBC giveth, NBC taketh away. Last spring I wrote the following about an episode of Community that took on the notion of corporate personhood as only a TV show broadcast by a multinational corporation could. The original title, "Subway Is People!" is a throwback to the 1973 dystopian film Soylent Green, which a friend made me watch, for which I am eternally grateful.

***

I've been on an anti-corporation kick lately, partly because I live in perpetual mortal terror, on behalf of the publishing industry in which I work, of the virtual/multinational behemoth known as Amazon.com; partly because of how clearly the political process of electing people to public office has been overshadowed by monied interests in the wake of the corporation-friendly Citizens United case decided by the Supreme Court in 2010; and partly because I'm reading Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann, which challenges the notion of corporate personhood using as many words as most publicly traded companies have shareholders. All this to say, lately I'm a little obsessed.

Of course, my obsession is helped by the glut of news stories showcasing the shadow side of corporate personhood--strategic outsourcing that cripples communities, threats of relocation that extort crippling tax incentives from state and local governments, the way an entire country freaks out over every little dip on the Dow Jones, not to mention the millions of dollars funneling into presidential campaigns Republican and Democratic alike from monied interests. It's almost enough to cause someone like me, with no business savvy but a pretty strong streak of paranoia and an even stronger populist impulse, to run as fast as I can off the grid.

Don't worry, Amazon et al., Inc., I'm not going anywhere. I'm too indebted to my tech products, brand-name clothes, movie previews and broadcast television to venture too far. Also, I occasionally get a little pressure release from said broadcast television, which is self-aware enough (in a way only an artificial person such as a corporation can be self-aware; think Skynet in The Terminator) to poke fun at itself in a way that amuses and mollifies me and thus increases its profits. The National Broadcasting Corporation (Nnnn . . . Bbbbbb . . . Cccccc . . . ) has taken the lead in this effort, so far as I can tell: its show 30 Rock has been built largely on its wry mockery of the network and its ownership by first General Electric ("We bring good things to life!") and more recently Comcast (referred to on the show as "Kabletown"). I laugh and I laugh and I laugh, and I stay on my couch while NBC brazenly announces, through its online product Hulu.com, its "evil plot to destroy the world"--seriously, that's the tagline on their ads.

This week the other Must-See-TV show Community got into the act, mocking corporate personhood by introducing "Subway," a new student at Greendale Community College who meets the requirements of the school's bylaws for Subway ("Eat Fresh!") to open a store on campus. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. Here's the opening scene; I apologize for the thirty-second Lexus commercial you'll have to watch first. You can, by the way, watch the whole episode on hulu.com--where you can also watch the world descend into a new landless feudalism that can only end in a scenario not dissimilar to that of The Hunger Games (now in theaters).

Monday, February 04, 2013

"I Like to Start With Something Funny": The Made-For-TV Liturgy of Joel Osteen

OK, I'll admit it: I've become a semiregular viewer of Joel Osteen (of the clan Osteen!). He's on TV every Sunday right after The Chris Matthews Show--like, right after, without commercial interruption. No sooner has Matthews's round table each told me something I don't know than Joel and his pearly-white family are inviting me to "discover the champion in you." And before I have the chance to shake that catchy jingle out of my head he's right there smiling at me, inviting me to Houston, Texas, and telling me a joke.

"I like to start with something funny," he says, week after week after week. It's the third element of his televised liturgy: jingle to "Join us" to joke. It's his version of "Tinkers to Evers to Chance," its emphatic sequence winning souls for him time after time after time.

Joel Osteen's first book came out almost simultaneous to my first book. I remember walking around a trade show trying to drum up some interest--any interest whatsoever--in Comic Book Character, then turning a corner and seeing Osteen, sporting that toothsome grin, signing books for several hundred people. Your Best Life Now! the book shouted at each person standing in line, and I'll be darned if they didn't every one of them believe their best life was right there tucked in its pages. I didn't join them in line, but I've had my eye on Osteen ever since. All this to say, I'm not entirely objective about him, because I'm human, and to be human is to be insanely jealous of other humans. Or something like that.

Anyway, Osteen is controversial for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because he's so safe. His messages are so much sanctified sensibility--common sense with a therapeutic sensitivity and a gospel gloss. There's nothing wrong with them, although theologically speaking, there's nothing especially right about them either. But you probably know that; what interests me lately is not the content of his sermons but the medium in which he presents them. I'm interested in his made-for-TV liturgy.

Osteen has tens of thousands of people in regular attendance at his church in Houston, and he occasionally travels the country filling out sports stadiums with eager audiences. But he's known above all as a TV preacher. A half-hour every Sunday he's right there in your living room, flashing that grin, offering you your Best Life Now! No commercials, unless you count the intermittent invitations to buy books or videos or audios, but even those are put forward by Joel and his wife. It's a half-hour of uninterrupted Osteen, week after week after week.

Here's how the half-hour unfolds:

(1) Welcome to Lakewood! Y'all come see us!
(2) I like to start with something funny.
(3) Hold up your Bibles; say it like you mean it . . .

I'll stop there for a moment to expand on this shared recitation: all the gathered throng speaks the following in unison, led by Osteen:

This is my Bible. I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do. Today I’ll be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I’ll never be the same, in Jesus name.
This is tantamount to a creed, a statement of faith. There's a presumed faith in a triune God, which the Bible affirms, but the main focus is on the relationship between what the Bible says and the individual person. Which leads to . . . (4) The sermon.
The sermon is fast-paced and packed with hooks--sensible advice in alliterated short sentences, illustrated by stories from the Osteen family and people one degree removed thereof. My wife is a therapist, and she hears lots from Osteen that she would be comfortable sharing with her clients if they weren't from Osteen's lips. He's good at gently prodding his followers out of self-defeating attitudes. It's hard to be afraid of life when you're listening to Joel Osteen; it's easy to think that anything is possible.

The most remarkable thing to me, however, is the cadence of it. "La la lala la laaaaaa; la la lala la laaaaa." Something like that.

"God doesn't ____ ____ _______________; God _____ ___ ______ _______ __________________. . . .

You're not ___ ______ ______ __________________; you're _____ ___ ______ _____ _______________."
These are the things that a congregant might right down on a church bulletin, and there's a startling number of them in one thirty-minute period.

This sort of thing is, I think, ideally suited to television, which has taught us to expect pithy proverbs and tidy turns of phrase. You know you're on the clock during a Joel Osteen sermon, and you're fine with it: you've got a full day ahead of you, and you can't fritter the day away watching TV. God doesn't want you vegging out; God wants you sucking the marrow out of life. Or something like that. Anyway, before you know it Osteen has made his last point of the week, your self-confidence is topped off and you're ready to face the day. Only one thing remains:

(5) The invitation.
Every episode ends with an invitation to give your life to God. It's a happy moment, and we're left imagining hundreds of hands being raised in Houston, and thousands more throughout the country. That's the magic of television: the viewer is a full participant, even though what the viewer imagines may well have nothing to do with reality.

It's worth noting that there's clearly stuff that happens in Houston at Osteen's church before and probably also after the broadcast. I suspect there's some congregational singing, maybe some announcements, undoubtedly an offering. We forget that happens when we're in Osteen's thrall from the comfort of our living rooms. Osteen and his people have figured out what elements of a church service as we've come to understand it translates to his chosen medium. He's found the product within the phenomenon of the gathered body of Christ, and he's packaged it up nice and brought it to market.

I find myself less and less put out by Osteen. He's harmless and even, I daresay, sometimes helpful. I'm more concerned, frankly, by his medium than his message: if what he's selling is what church is, how long will it take before the whole world changes the channel?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Why David Byrne Threw Beyonce Under the Bus

Over the past couple of months I was slowly working my way through David Byrne's How Music Works, posting as I went. (You can read some posts related to the book here, here and here.) His comments on Beyonce were a curiosity then; now, thanks to her lip-synched National Anthem at the inauguration and her highly anticipated halftime performance at the Super Bowl, she's the lead, and David Byrne is just that guy from Talking Heads. In any case, Byrne's discussion of Beyonce is still interesting to me; maybe it'll be interesting to you as well.

***

I'm continuing my trek through How Music Works by David Byrne, former lead singer of Talking Heads. It's shockingly slow going, to be honest--although I think that has less to do with the book and more to do with me. Every time I pick it up I'm glad I did, but there are only a few days a week I see my way clear to pick it up in the first place.

I'm at the point in the book, however, where when I do pick it up, I'm rewarded for doing so. Today I'm reading from the chapter on collaboration, which ends with a reflection on "emergent storytelling" in songwriting, or how the attempt to match words sonically and rhythmically with music that's already been written often results in a song writing itself--snatches of lyrics that, upon reflection, relate naturally and intimately to one another and combine to tell a coherent and resonant tale. "This might seem magical," Byrne admits, "but it's true."

Therein lies the danger: words have the capacity to stamp out magic.

At times words can be a dangerous addition to music--they can pin it down. Words imply that the music is about what the words say, literally, and nothing more. If done poorly, they can destroy the pleasant ambiguity that constitutes much of the reason we love music. That ambiguity allows listeners to psychologically tailor a song to suit their needs, sensibilities, and situations, but words can limit that, too. There are plenty of beautiful pieces of music that I can't listen to because they've been "ruined" by bad words--my own and others. In Beyonce's song "Irreplaceable," she rhymes "minute" with "minute," and I cringe every time I hear it (partly because by that point I'm singing along). On my own song "Astronaut," I wrap up with the line "feel like I'm an astronaut," which seems like the dumbest metaphor for alienation ever. Ugh.
I can imagine David Byrne singing that Beyonce song, actually. In case you don't know it, it goes a little something like this:

To the left, to the left . . .
Everything you own in a box to the left . . .
Don't you ever for a minute get to thinking you're irreplaceable.
Whereas Beyonce sounds strong and defiant, as is typical of her, David Byrne's version sounds much more plaintive as I imagine it. Beyonce keeps her head up, but Byrne's head is decidedly down.

I was surprised by how candidly Byrne throws Beyonce under the bus in this passage, but in his defense, he does sing along. Not to mention that rhyming a word with the same word is a pet peeve of mine as well. I once got so vocal about it that a friend wrote a poem to mock me for it. Each line ended with the word me, which was extraordinarily funny. The only line I remember, however, is this:

Loathing--such loathing!--for me and my clothing.
That, my friends, is a great little lyric. I daresay that my friend was engaged in emergent storytelling twenty years before David Byrne wrote a book about it.