Ugly and Rough

“Ugly” and “rough” – at least in the English language – sound sort of like they are. They certainly don’t roll off the tongue like “pretty” and “smooth.” There’s a whole chicken-and-egg argument that we could make about whether ugly-sounding words describe ugly things, or if we associate the ugliness of a word to that sound because of its meaning.

But that’s for another day.

This is really a brief thought about the value of the Ugly and the Rough.

Walmart Wins with Rough

I know this may seem like an alien concept to many of you, but there are many Walmarts at which I might shop depending upon where in the metro area I am. And I’ve noticed something peculiar in each of them: from the time you get in the front lobby to the time you enter the actual store, the floors have all been replaced with a textured, stone-like surface. It looks very nice and stylish, and even somewhat trendy. And it’s now in all the stores where I happen to be.

It also aggravates me, because it happens to be in that area where the shopping carts are stored. Because of the rough floor, by the time I get into the main part of the store I can’t tell if there is a bad wheel on the cart, or if the cart is going to squeal or drift. By the time I figure out that I have a bad cart, it’s usually more of a bother to go back than it is to live with the annoyance. And that, my friends, is human engineering at its most scientific.

If the floors were smooth, I’d be able to test my cart right there on the spot, and if it was a lemon I could move to the next cart in the stack. And so would you (if you shopped at Walmart.) And so would everyone else. And the carts would all be scattered, and there would be a traffic jam as the picky and the persnickety all jockeyed for the Golden Cart that holds the magic ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory. The expensive new flooring actually serves a hidden purpose — to keep people moving into the store.

Google Wins with Ugly

GoogleHave you been to Google.com lately? Don’t bother clicking over on my account. Aside from occasionally changing the cartoony image in the logo, it’s pretty much the same. A simple white page with a search box a third of the way down in the center. No glitz, no glamor, no videos in your face. Google is flat-out ugly. Because of the ugly and simple, it also loads very quickly, meaning a massive cost savings in terms of bandwidth and time. Given the number of searches processed, adding an additional quarter-of-a-second to the pageload times would be a lot of time wasted for end-users.

Yahoo!How much more popular would Yahoo! Search be if the search experience weren’t so noisy? Granted, Yahoo! has always been more interested in being a portal, but Google lets you have a portal page too. It just doesn’t jam it in your face. When I want to search for something quickly, I don’t want stock quotes, headlines, the weather, links to my mail, and a giant banner ad for my credit score. When I want the portal, I’ll go to the portal. When I want to search, I want a search. Ugly and simple wins.

My Experience

I’ve been very grateful for those of you who enjoy this site enough to subscribe. For the longest time, there was a slow linear progression of the subscriber base. That slope got steeper the day I added those big ugly orange subscription buttons to my sidebar. I had a couple of people tell me they were ugly and had to go. Yet the previous ones were too small, the colors didn’t stand out, and too far down the page to attract attention. For most people, the buttons appear on the site with no scrolling necessary.

Yes, they are ugly. Yes, they break the color theme. Yes, they eat up valuable real-estate. And yes, they work. They’ve helped me connect with more people, by encouraging them to consume these words at the time and place of their own convenience, not mine. (Tired of seeing those buttons? Peruse Occam’s RazR in an RSS reader, and tell the Subscription Monsters to be gone.)

Ugly and Rough are ugly and rough… but at times are elegantly effective.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, Google, Yahoo, Walmart, user experience, web design[/tags]

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Save the Date

South by Deep South is really happening. No joke.

September 26-28 in Birmingham. We picked a date that did not conflict with either a Crimson Tide home game nor a NASCAR event. As it happens, we’ll also have the 10th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival going on, so it ought to be an amazing weekend all the way through. Not to mention a full-bore WordCamp wrapped up in the SxDS proceedings.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, sxds, south by deep south, wordcamp, birmingham, sidewalk film festival[/tags]

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Sacred Cows

{{myquote|If you’re going to kill a sacred cow, grill it nice and thick, and don’t smother it in cheap steak sauce. Anything less is eternal disrespect.}}

Inspired by David Armano on Twitter.

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Do Something

I’m lucky, in that I don’t have a bad commute to the office and back. Of all the major thoroughfares leading into downtown Birmingham, coming in from the East on Interstate-20 is the best by far. Yet if the weather is bad, or I happen to hear about an accident on my route that might slow things down, I bail to the back roads.

Did you find yourself nodding in agreement at the above? There’s something about being in control of your own destiny — and something restrictive and constraining about being stuck on an interstate staring at the same bumper stickers. I’ve seen drivers who pass an exit before hitting the roadblock, and then back up as much as a half-mile in the shoulder just to get off the interstate. But once you start along the scenic route, do you really get where you want any faster?

“As long as I’m moving,” I tell myself. You’ve got to do something. Yet there are times that doing nothing is precisely the best course of action.

A Chicken in Every Plot

Politicians offer sweeping solutions for many “big issues” in the U.S., all predicated on the notion that we must “do something.” Somehow, the act of committing time and resources to a perceived problem makes you better, because you “did something.”

I had a client that was facing a minor media issue. Very, very minor. On a scale of one-to-ten, with 10 being “catastrophic,” this was somewhere between zero and one. A couple of people in the leadership wanted to counter false and anonymous accusations made through email. They saw the email, but virtually no one else did. Yet they wanted a full-court media blitz.

When faced with pressure, we all revert to different habits. Some people freeze, and some people react. They have a natural impulse that tells them to “do something!”

It took some time, but I had to explain to them that their proposed “solution” would cause far greater confusion and distress than the original message. It would simply introduce the falsehoods to a much larger audience, a fraction of whom might end up believing it. I suggested they assume a posture I call “Active Waiting.” Passive Waiting would be the ostrich-head ignoring. Active Waiting is sitting still with a purpose, as an animal ready to pounce. Active Waiting is the admission that the timing of your chosen direction or activity is just as important as the action itself.

Petty Truth

When you are throwing a surprise party for someone, do you just lounge around their house doing whatever you want? No — you find a safe hiding place to wait, and you focus your awareness on the door. If your mind wanders off the task of Active Waiting, you run the risk of making a noise at the wrong time or casting a shadow in view of the window.

Active Waiting takes as much time and energy as “Doing Something.” It is doing something, even if it doesn’t resemble it from a given perspective. Like staying on the Interstate, it’s often the best course of action. Tom Petty had it right: The waiting is the hardest part.

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My Chuck Heston Story

Charlton Heston at the 1963 Civil Rights March.

Charlton Heston at the 1963 Civil Rights March.

Charlton Heston died a few days ago. I never met him, but he did provide for one of the most memorable incidents at my last television station.

Several years ago, Heston was visiting Birmingham, waiting in our lobby for an interview appearance on our noon newscast. Our Managing Editor, Al Volker, was running a last-minute script update from the newsroom to the studio. As he rounded the corner at the reception desk, he spotted Heston — and without breaking stride — blurted out:

OH JESUS! IT’S MOSES!

We asked Al if he ever went back and talked with Heston, or got an autograph.

“Nah. It would have ruined my story.”

In hindsight, what would he have gained from knowing Heston’s reaction? Nothing. The story is better left unfinished.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, television, Charlton Heston, ABC 33/40[/tags]

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Victim of Success

I’ve never been a big fan of that phrase, because in nearly every case where it is used the pluses outweigh the minuses. But often success means growth, growth means popularity, and popularity means uqibquity; and that something special isn’t so special when everyone is doing it.

This rant is about Twitter. I don’t talk much about Social Media stuff here unless there is a lesson to be gleaned outside the bleeding edge. For those of you who don’t know about Twitter, it is a microblogging service that is becoming increasingly popular for its ease of use, its ability to work on multiple platforms, and its flexibility. You create an account, and you can choose whose updates to follow. You can track their updates on the web, in a special program, through instant messenger, or as a text message. You can send direct messages that will reach your “friends” in whichever manner is convenient for them at that particular moment.

I like Twitter for a number of reasons. I track some pretty smart people, and it’s useful for hearing what they’re talking about. I can ask questions of my “hive-mind”, and usually get a number of insightful answers within moments. I track PR and marketing professionals, web developers, Red Cross friends, and Birmingham area locals. I monitor the timeline for keywords, and have found instances of real people reporting “breaking news” on Twitter, long before the cable news networks ever acknowledge a thing. I’ve been a big fan of the service, and have used it to connect with many neat and interesting people (some of whom are going out of their way to help a friendly stranger in his job search!) I also helped develop strategies the American Red Cross will soon employ, using Twitter to connect with evacuees during the next big event.

The Alltop Effect

Apparently, I’ve done so well connecting with others, I made a list. Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop site has a list of Top Twitterers, and I made it somehow. It’s not based on volume or popularity — someone just liked my content there to include me among the sixty or so names in the aggregator. I am truly honored.

Since being on the Alltop Twitter list, I have been getting anywhere from 6-12 new followers every day. These are people who haven’t engaged with me anywhere else, and they didn’t find me by following conversations I’ve had with others. These are relatively new users, who have just signed up and apparently start by adding everyone from the Alltop list. I make it a habit of checking the profiles and websites of those who follow me just to get a sense of who they are and what they’re about.

In the last week or two, the “new follows” have taken a decidedly darker turn.

I’m getting Twitter Spam from people who are creating profiles just for the attention. They have nothing to say (and in more than a few cases haven’t posted a single update.) They know that the moment they “follow” me, I’ll get a notification email and at the very least will check them out. But hey, I’m still somewhat conscientious about this. There are many Twitter users who are either so desperate to be followed that they automatically follow back, or they have rigged their account to automatically follow back.

A Changing Dynamic

Twitter changes with you over time. The more you use it, the more value you find in different strategies for using it. As your Twitterverse gets larger, some of those strategies and techniques don’t scale, and you have to use the tool in different ways. This is nothing new to the PR and Marketing types with whom I regularly correspond. They’ve been seeking clever ways to use Twitter within their campaigns. Jason Falls did a great job with his work for the Robby Gordon team. Dell Computers has several customerservice people on Twitter who find complaints and address them before the hapless (and soon-to-be-happy) customer knows what hit him. These successes are dependent upon understanding the culture of Twitter and of the many many ecosystems within it.

I firmly believe these successes are fueling the TwitterSpam artists. They know the culture is trusting, and they know they can follow 3,000 people and get 700 to follow back. They know they can pump out links and advertisements – and to be honest, I’m even getting concerned about the safety of some of the sites they have in their profiles. There are documented cases of websites that launch malicious code through your browser. I’m thinking twice about even checking the sites listed on Twitter profiles, because the Culture of Trust is too big a target for hackers, and the cost is zero.

Some of the diehard Twitter purists have been advocating an attitude of “you-follow-me-I-follow-you.” They like to see users whose follow/followed ratio approaches 1. Others have made the argument that you should follow as many people as you can, and expand your universe to as many opinions as possible. I think that’s just outright silly, and it doesn’t scale for me. I still want to be able to see what people I am truly connected with are doing, and I can’t with so much noise in my follow-stream.

Bittertweet Lessons

This article isn’t about Twitter, though. It’s about how success has a dark side. Twitter doesn’t have a business model and as far as I know isn’t actively courting a buyer. What it does have is enough of a dedicated user base and a powerful platform that spammers can’t ignore it. It’s like making enough money that you can finally afford your first brand new car — one so nice you now have to get an alarm for it.

I don’t just blame Twitter, nor the people who are seeking to game the system. I’m partly to blame. I invested enough time and attention on those in the community that my name made a list. I should expect to be targeted – and that’s the price that goes along with all that good. All the people I have met and connected with, and all of the wonderful ways we’ll end up helping each other down the road. (Rob, Mack, Jason, CK, Daniel, Shannon, Shashi, Mike, Connie, and the many many others who I’ve had the privilege to speak with.) SxDS wouldn’t be anything without Twitter.

Now, while trying to figure out how to wrap up this article, the following e-mail arrived:

Hi, Ike Pigott.

googlecashreviews (googlecashrevie) is now following your updates on Twitter.

Check out googlecashreviews’s profile here:
http://twitter.com/googlecashrevie

You may follow googlecashreviews as well by clicking on the “follow” button.

Life generates irony far more twisted than the brain of a fiction writer.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, Twitter, Spam, microblogging, social media[/tags]

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10 Years Gone

ABC 33/4010 years ago this very morning, I was working in the news business. I was working the nightside reporting shift for the ABC affiliate here in Birmingham. I was fishing around for a story, to replace the one that I knew someone was going to do.

A couple of days before, a local middle school student named Lindy collapsed and died while running track. The school was in shock, and the family was taking it very hard. The funeral was to be April 9th — and I don’t like doing those stories. It always felt a little invasive for me, but that was the big news of the day. Of course, there were the standard follow-up stories about grief counselors, and the availability of Automated External Defibrillators (AED). I just wanted to find something else.

That “something else” was an alligator. A fifteen-foot long alligator that attacked two men in a canoe. They survived, and shot the alligator. Jerry Wade was my photog partner that day, and we went to get interviews and video with the alligator guys.

However, you’ll never find any file video of either the alligator or Lindy’s funeral. They were overtaken by events.

F-5

Radar loopThat night, 10 years ago, an F-5 tornado ripped across central Alabama. It killed 34 people, most of them in metro Birmingham. For the next week and a half, there was no other news that mattered. There were eyewitness accounts, tales of survival, and tales of heartbreak and loss. The real story was in the way so many communities were brought closer as they recovered from such an awesome destructive force.

Our news Jeep pulled in to affected neighborhoods just minutes after the tornado passed. After one or two live updates, Jerry and I put our gear down and took a break. We had been commandeered by a Marine Policeman who happened to live there — he wanted our lights for a rescue mission. Jerry had the camera light, and I had a 2-million candle-power aircraft landing light. We followed a group of four others about a half of a mile into a field, climbing over felled trees and trying to stay out of the downed power lines in this total darkness. One of the party started raising an objection to our being with them. The patrolman said “Not now. They’re with me, and I need their lights.”

We came upon a house — rather, what was left of one. It was flattened. Pinned underneath that debris was a woman named Dorothy. It took us an hour to dig her out, and clear a path for the pickup truck masquerading as an ambulance. We got her loaded on board, and escorted the truck out, removing any other debris that was in the way.

When we got back to the live truck, it was time to set up for another hit. We sent in a little bit of the video of the rescue, and proceeded to introduce that live. While we were doing the live shot in front of a damaged home, a family of five popped up out from underneath a brick stairway. They were in one corner of the basement to ride out the storm. They picked the right corner, because the other three fell in.

10 Years of Perspective

Now that I look back, I don’t think I was ever as proud of my station as in those moments. When we radioed in that we were being pulled into the rescue effort, there was not a single complaint. No over-eager producers demanding that we stay and go live. No managers cussing us out for doing something human and humane. There were many amazing stories that came out of that storm. I’m proud of all of them, but especially the one I tell now. On that day, and in that way, we got it right.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, tornado, f-5, April 8th, Birmingham, ABC 33/40[/tags]

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