Attacking tech

February 25, 2010

I’m glad to see that we’re coming to a consensus about texting and driving. Most people these days recognize that it’s a dangerous activity — one that should be avoided at all costs. As my friend at aplaceforthoughts.com writes, Oprah is using her considerable influence to raise awareness, and many states are enacting laws to keep people from texting in the car.

Though I’m glad to see so many doing their part to stop this dangerous activity, it bugs me that texting has become such a target while many other dangerous activities are still legal behind the wheel, including eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting the radio, putting on makeup and reading. Yes, reading.

Just about everything on that list has been causing accidents since the dawn of the automobile age, and yet none of them has been outlawed. In fact, most of us are guilty of at least a few of them. Some of us are guilty of them every day. Personally, I drink coffee on the way to the office every day. I fiddle with the radio. I’ve even been known to scarf a burger or a burrito while barreling down the road.

Ever try eating a burrito in the car? Bad idea. Especially when the thing bursts all over your good shirt.

Studies have shown that eating and drinking hot beverages are more dangerous than talking on a cell phone or sending text messages. So why are we allowed to eat in the car? Why is every automobile equipped with a radio? Why are there NO warnings on car stereo systems that adjusting them while driving is hazardous?

The reason is simple: We all do these things. And it’s easier for lawmakers — many of whom are not particularly tech savvy — to condemn something they don’t understand, rather than look at the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture means we need a real “distracted driver” law — a broad law that penalizes drivers for any distracting behavior they take part in while driving. And that means everything.

The law wouldn’t have to prohibit a person from eating, drinking, or even talking on a cell phone. But in the case of an accident, the driver would be ticketed and their insurance would take a hit when it was found they were distracted.

When I worked as a crime reporter, I saw way more accidents caused by people fiddling with the radio or yelling at their kids than when people were talking on cell phones. To be fair, cell phones were a lot more rare in those days, but it doesn’t change the fact that distracted drivers have always been a danger on the roads.

Let’s all pledge to stop texting while driving. But if we’re going to make laws, let’s make sure we’re going after the behavior, not the technology.

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Times’ Paterson story was a hatchet job

February 20, 2010

On Tuesday, the New York Times skewered David W. Johnson, a top aide to New York Gov. David Paterson, in a news report that brought to light Johnson’s run-ins with the law as a teenager, questions about his qualifications to serve as a campaign advisor, and domestic violence allegations.

To be fair, it would concern me to learn that my state’s governor surrounds himself with drug dealers who beat women. But that’s not what’s in this story. What we learn instead is that Johnson had two run-ins with the law for selling drugs when he was a teenager — about 20 years ago. And the domestic violence accusations? The most serious one in the article is made by an ex-girlfriend who said Johnson punched her in the face in 2001. She didn’t file a complaint with the police, he denies it, and though she claims to have filed complaints with the police before, she refused to share the information with the Times.

A good newspaper editor would never have printed these things.

First, Johnson served his time for the drug sales. Not only that, but he went to college, studied criminal justice and turned his life around. He took a job as an intern in Paterson’s office (Paterson was a state senator at the time), later became Paterson’s driver, and continued to work his way through the ranks. It’s a “troubled youth makes good” story if I ever heard one. But you know what? The reporting of the drug arrests themselves is disturbing. Because Johnson was a youthful offender, he has no official criminal record. None. In the eyes of the law, he’s squeaky clean. So how does the Times know about the arrests at all? We’ll come back to that.

Domestic violence is an important issue. It warrants as much attention as we can give it. And there are few things as serious as allegations of child or spousal abuse. But the New York Times is clearly trying to demonstrate a pattern in Johnson’s behavior that is entirely unsupported by the facts. Witnesses saw him and a girlfriend yelling at each other once. A woman says he punched her, but he denies it, witnesses deny it and though she claims to have proof, she refuses to provide it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen; I’m saying as a newspaper editor, I wouldn’t print allegations without proof, and the Times did just that.

The big questions are: Why did the Times print this article? and Where did it get this information?

The answer lies in the rest of the story, where you find Johnson’s qualifications to serve as top confidante and campaign strategist to Paterson come into question by top Democrats. Kinda makes sense now, doesn’t it? These are “top Democrats” who feel like their very status as “top Democrats” should automatically “qualify” them to be closer to Paterson. They should get his ear more often…after all, they’ve been in politics awhile, probably went to fancy colleges and never never worked as drivers

Oh, and these top Democrats bringing up all these questions? They’re unnamed. They’re other Paterson aides, clearly jealous of Johnson’s standing. And, most likely, they’ve been the Times’ most consistent backroom sources for Paterson news.

So, the Times reports the story the way the sources want it done. That makes the sources happy, and the sources will keep giving the Times more stories. And, if the story works and Paterson has to distance himself from Johnson, it leaves a big void that needs to be filled — hopefully by one of the jealous aides who fed the story to the Times in the first place. Unfortunately for the jealous aides, Paterson is standing by his man; after all, he clearly can’t count on the rest of his staff either, right?

We’ve been told to we can’t trust the intentions of bloggers. They all have angles. But this story illustrates in vivid color that even the Old Gray Lady hides its intentions, runs hatchet jobs to please sources, and has no trouble at all printing a half-baked scandal story worthy of Perez Hilton.

We deserve better.


Location ain’t everything (or, how you’re ruining Twitter)

February 14, 2010

Edelman Digital’s David Armano recently tweeted out a thought that pretty much sums up Twitter’s future:

It’s unlikely people will abandon networks unless they become so polluted we have no choice.

Twitter can be pretty awesome. I use it every day to catch up on local news, national news and tech news. In the past couple of weeks I’ve found a service I needed desperately, gotten some help with some tricky code, donated some cash to help fund childhood cancer research and even helped answer some InDesign questions. It’s the quickest, easiest way to crowd source, to track zeit geist and just see what people are talking about. It’s a good place to make connections (folks all over are holding tweetups to meet Twitter friends in real life) and it’s an even better place to go when you just want to scream into the void — when you have nobody to talk to but yourself.

Because of all of those things, Twitter is addictive. And when something’s as addictive as Twitter, Armano is right: Users are unlikely to walk away.  But Armano would be more accurate if he said “People will abandon the network when it becomes so polluted we have no choice.”

Enter foursquare, Gowalla, and the “check-in” phenomenon.

You could already argue that Twitter is a cesspool. Besides the bots, spammers, automated feeds and the like, there are too many people who still fill feeds with what they’re eating for dinner, what physical activity they’re partaking in or where they’re doing their laundry. Do. Not. Want. If this is you, you will be unfollowed. Let’s add to that crowd the number of PR, SM and SEO types who talk incessantly about Twitter, as if anyone with 1,000 followers or more is suddenly qualified a social media expert. And while we’re at it, let’s add the fake celebrity tweeps. I have no problem with celebrities on Twitter; I hate spokespeople for celebrities on Twitter.

If you add all that up, Twitter is already headed to that deep, dark place MySpace and Facebook entered a few years ago — that pit of despair filled with spammers, porn and slimeballs peddling junk.

But you can add to that mix the location-based check-in games, which MySpace never had.

Frankly, I don’t care where you’re having dinner. I don’t care that you’re at the airport. I don’t care that you’re at the grocery store. I will not be meeting you there, and no part of me is grateful for the knowledge of your location. I don’t care that you’re the mayor of Starbucks on Main Avenue and I don’t care who you ousted to get that title.

I skim Twitter for thoughts, recommendations, ideas. I’m looking for things that are actionable. The most annoying thing ever is “I’m at Taste of Philly” and a link…that takes me to a foursquare page. Here’s what I like: “Taste of Philadelphia has the best cheesesteaks in Syracuse!” Maybe link me to a photo of the sandwich you’re about to devour. Next time I’m out to lunch I might give the place a try, and I’ll credit you with the recommendation.

The point is there’s nothing inherently interesting about what a person is doing or where they are. The interesting part is what they’re thinking…how they view the particular place or activity. Think of it this way: Do you call your mom, best friend, significant other every time you walk into a building? Of course not. Don’t do that to your Twitter followers either. It’s lame, and it pollutes my stream. I know, I know: “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me.”

Okay. You’re unfollowed.


Just why is “conversion optimization” the “new SEO?”

February 1, 2010

According to this post at Search Engine Land, there’s a new game in town. It’s called conversion optimization, and it’s the next big money maker for the SEO crowd. Apparently the columnist has just discovered that the promise of SEOs — getting lots of people to your site — just isn’t enough anymore. Now visitors actually have to do something, or they just don’t count.

I agree with that, and I’ve said it before. I believe now, and have believed for years, that SEOs can only provide raw numbers, and way too often those numbers are accidental. The question is this: Why are SEOs turning to conversion marketing now?

Up until now, SEOs have been able to prey on frustrated website owners who just know in their hearts they could make a killing online if only they had more traffic. And since the early days of search, SEOs have always had a degree of success in providing raw numbers. But all too often the client is still not happy. Why? Because their 300 percent increase in visitors has equated to a 0 percent increase in sales. The SEO always begs off: “It’s not my fault,” he says. “I brought you traffic. That’s what you paid me for.”

Usually, this is followed up by an offer to tweak the search terms or some other tactic that will cost the client more money.

Clients aren’t having it anymore. And for good reason.

I love and hate the change from SEO to conversion marketing. Here’s why:

I hate it because it allows the same smarmy tricksters to keep stealing your money. Look, if they weren’t honest or capable before, can you believe they’re honest or capable now? I’ve been talking to clients about conversions ever since I got into this game. When a client asks me about their traffic and whether they get enough visitors, I always tell them the same thing: It’s not the number of visitors that’s important; it’s the number of customers.

I’ve always told my clients to save their SEO money and put it toward advertising. Generate desire for your product before the potential customer gets to your website. When they get there, make sure they know how to order and make the order process easy. The only time you need to convince someone to buy after they’ve gotten to your site is if they didn’t mean to be there in the first place. That’s the traffic SEOs have been generating from the beginning.

I love it because it means the tide is finally turning. People are starting to see that there are no accidental customers, and fooling people to come to your site is never the right way to start a healthy buyer-seller relationship. I love it because it will help continue to expose the big lie behind SEO — the idea that all you really need are stats and a high Google rank.

I can’t say enough what a hoax SEO is. (The only SEO you ever need should come from your designer. If your designer doesn’t know best web practices, you’ve got the wrong guy.) It says a lot that in the past couple of years, the SEO crowd first attached itself to social media, promising thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and is only now talking about conversions — way too late in the game. And I’m not just talking one or two. The Search Engine Land column has been tweeted 390 times as of this writing.

Be careful out there. These are the same people, using a different tactic.