Friday, March 15, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns: Self-Promotion and Self-Loathing

This post is part of an occasional series on platform. Read the first entry here. Find the whole series (on shuffle!) here.

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As intriguing an intellectual exercise as I find this series on platform to be, the fact of the matter is that it's only really interesting to people who have something to sell. It may be a book or a song or a film; it may be a set of skills or a big, revolutionary idea. It may be something you're not selling for money; maybe you're looking for converts or cobelligerents. Michael Hyatt, whose book on platform got me started on this series, talks about "wow products" and experiences as a priori to the work of building a platform: If you don't have something worth wowing over, why on earth are you trying to get in people's faces and on their radar?

So, if you're interested in platform--space you carve out for yourself that draws people's attention to you and helps them focus on what you're trying to say or do--you're probably interested in selling something. (If you're not interested in selling something but you're interested in platform, you may need to read this book.) To enter into the work of building a platform means--inevitably, unavoidably, unabashedly--to engage in self-promotion.

The notion of self-promotion sickens a lot of people; it petrifies a lot more. I've had people agonize with me over self-promotion while simultaneously promoting themselves to me. It feels wrong to do it; it feels exploitative of our friends and family and conversation partners. It feels slick and smarmy and dirty. It feels like we imagine selling our soul must feel.

And yet when it works, it feels sooooo goooooood.

Postmoderns are natives in a world steeped in advertising. Prior to the twentieth century advertising was primarily descriptive: this product does this and doesn't do that. Only carnival barkers over-promised, and they usually got run out of town on a rail. But you knew that had to end; advertising had too much in common with evangelism, and evangelism only works as a big, big sell. Richard Dahlstrom tells the story of how Coca Cola advertisers mimicked the missionary enterprise and changed advertising from description to proselytization:

After Asa Chandler purchased the coca-cola formula from a pharmacist in 1887, he cast a vision to his sales team, declaring that this product should be, “a thirst quenching, heaven-sent drink; a blessing to this sun-parched earth.” Chandler was a Methodist who began his sales meetings with prayer and ended his training weeks with the whole team singing stirring renditions of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Think about that: advertisers were now soldiers, aping Christian missionary zeal, convincing themselves that their product was "heaven-sent," authorizing themselves to foist Coke on the masses by any means necessary. And Coke was just the first domino; advertising very quickly became a matter of over-promising, tying the wow product to the existential angst of the consumer--selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Asa Chandler saw himself as a missionary for Coca Cola, but he, and now we all, became carnival barkers writ large.

A hundred and twenty five years later, we are steeped in this kind of hyperpromotion. You can't take five steps in a modern economy without being sold something, whether it's a make and model of car or the sticker on its bumper, whether it's the billboard towering over your horizon or the spam text on your phone. Such advertising fatigues us and we know it, but it also is all we know, and so even though we hate it, it's where we go and what we do when we need to get a word out. It's the logic we subscribe to when we seek to build a platform for ourselves, when we seek to create a wow product or experience and bring it to market.

How do we break out of this vortex? How do we promote the things we're passionate about without coming to hate ourselves in the process?

First of all, we should know what we're passionate about, and invest our promotional energies in that. Asa Chandler was, it seems to me, passionate about Christianity; he forced himself, I think, to be passionate about Coca Cola. Passion can be cultivated, but it shouldn't be manufactured. Figure out what you're passionate about before you invest yourself in building a platform--even before you invest yourself in creating a wow product. Passion is the first ingredient in wow, anyway. It's passion that will sustain you in the hard work of making your products and experiences compelling; it'll sustain you in the often frustrating work of assembling a platform for getting the word out.

Second, we should give ourselves permission to be enthusiastic. I talked to a friend recently who has written her first novel; she's noticed that it's much easier for her to promote these fictional characters, this imagined story, than it is for her to promote her more memoirish writing. It feels to her like she's doing a friend a favor, rather than promoting herself, which often feels like begging for attention or shouting silliness like some Shamwow salesman. But all her writing comes out of a passion for the way words work on people; she has a natural enthusiasm for the craft of writing and the art of words. If your platform is based on your passion, moreso than a particular wow product, then your enthusiasm will be more organic, less manufactured. The things you promote become less products and more byproducts; the platform you assemble for yourself becomes less like conquered territory and more like space you're willing to share. It's our passions, not our products and most certainly not our platforms, that make us interesting, that make us compelling to the people around us. It's our passions, not the vain pursuit of platforms or wow products, that make us enjoy what we're doing and forget for a moment that we live in a social-Darwinian world where you're either selling something or being sold something. It's our passions that help us break free of the artificial, hyperpromotional world that we all secretly love and all desperately hate.

So when you think about platform, don't think about selling yourself. Don't even think about selling your stuff. Think about what you love, and then share what you love with the world. Soon enough all the other pieces will start to fall into place.

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Do yourself a favor and read Brian Mahan's Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose. It's my very favorite book and will help you sort through this self-promotion--self-loathing stuff.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns: Embracing Abundance

This is the latest in a series on platform for postmoderns. Find previous posts (in inexplicably nonsequential order) here. The first post can be found here.

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There's a fundamental logic underlying free market capitalism: every equation is zero-sum. For you to make something the world wants or needs, someone else will be forced to not make something else. For every sale you get, someone else loses a customer. For your star to rise, someone else's star has to fall. There's a finiteness to the world; only so much of everything exists, and so only so much of anything can come into being.

It's hard to argue the logic of that premise. The whole notion of environmental responsibility is based on the understanding that oil and carbon and topsoil and water are finite. Put a five-person family in a three-bedroom house and more than one person is going to be sharing a room. Every budget has a fiscal cliff. Even the days of our lives are numbered; as Moses once wrote, "Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10). Pardon my French, but Moses was a bummer.

And yet we are continually inspired to reject the limitations of time, space, money, power. Indeed, it's in defiance of such limits that nearly all innovation emerges. The Wright brothers defied the apparent restriction of gravity, the previously unassailable logic that we are bound to the earth. A few decades later and we're floating freely in space. Arguably as inspiring as Moses' words above are sobering, are Robert Browning's words describing the ache to create, to do an altogether new thing: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" Browning rejects the notion of scarcity that undergirds modern economics; his universe is endlessly abundant.

Moses himself rejected scarcity, actually, even as he was lamenting the limitations of time. He found drinking water in a desert, for pete's sake. And when his lieutenants complained to him that other Israelites were daring to give direction to the people of Israel during the exodus from Egypt--a zero-sum platform grab if ever there was one--Moses countered with an appeal to abundance: "“Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). In Moses' ideal world, everyone had power and wielded it well; everyone had, in fact, everything they needed and nothing they didn't.

That's the fundamental fallacy of a platform mentality shaped by scarcity: that, responsibly handled, there isn't enough of everything for everyone; that to wield influence, one needs to be elevated above everyone else; that for a platform to be effective, it must tower over and even undercut all other platforms. That's not how it plays out in practice, of course: Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, two international church leaders whose platforms were constructed under a modernist paradigm in a free market economy, aren't to my knowledge out to destroy each other. But the assumption underlying the modernist platform strategy presumes that you and I have time and attention and even loyalty enough for only one of them; they are in fact competing with each other for you. More to the point, if you have a message to disseminate--about marriage, for example--you're in head-to-head conflict with massive marriage brands like Les and Leslie Parrott, and John and Julie Gottman. You may as well give up now, because you don't have a fighting chance.

Postmoderns have seen the destructive quality of competition over limited resources in oil-based wars, slave labor and planned obsolescence. Meanwhile, they have grown up with technology that makes everything imaginable available at the touch of a button. Given these experiences, the notion of competing with someone in order to share something with everyone is preposterous. Postmoderns don't enter into competition with people who are interested in the same things; they enter into generative relationship with them. For the postmodern, there is plenty of room at the table, and a smorgasbord of ideas yields a feast of new insight--a vastly different image from the modernist vision of a marketplace of ideas, where supply supposedly drives down demand and only the fittest survive.

Of course, businesses that traffic in platform (publishing, for example) operate in a modernist economy still driven by scarcity, and so they continue to play by the rules of the modernist paradigm. Self-sustaining institutions are usually the last to convert to emerging models. But a new economy, a new paradigm, is possible; the pursuit of platform in an age of abundance requires merely that we think outside the box.

One way of doing so is to disseminate freely--to scatter ideas like seeds in whatever medium is available at any given moment. I write on blogs, for example, because I'm interested in getting an idea out there, to see how others interact with it. You can read what I write here freely, and you can comment as often as you like. We might think of a blog as an outpost in a war on competing brands, I suppose--by posting regularly we draw the attention of an audience away from some other platform and toward our own. But we don't have to think of it that way. We can instead think of it as what it is: one of many social media that is peculiarly conducive to idea sharing and generative conversation. We might think of it, in other words, as what we're bringing to a common table. This view of platform is less mercenary than the old regime's, and it syncs up nicely with a postmodern world in which playing well with others is a high value.

Any common table calls for people to gather around it, and so part of the task of building a postmodern platform is to announce the abundance, to find conversation partners and cultivate the conversation. Publicity, marketing and even sales are still part of this emerging economy. These things are done broadly, as you make scattershot announcements about new content as it goes live and offer incentives for people to engage your content; they are also done narrowly as you engage individuals with your content, commenting on their content and inviting them specifically to critique and build on what you've done. You make space in small and big ways for the conversation you want to take root and grow. You take responsibility for keeping the conversation vital and useful. And gradually you find that you've become a go-to voice in a can't-miss conversation. You've got yourself a platform, and nobody else had to suffer for it.

This approach to platform takes time, obviously. But contrary to Moses' lament, just like everything, there's plenty of time to go around.