Confab Central: forward progress

It’s been just over 72 hours since Gerry McGovern wrapped up his keynote at Confab, thus drawing to a close the 2015 edition of the one of the best content strategy conferences of the year. I’ve spent a large part of this long weekend sleeping, because let’s face it: going to sessions all day and stretching your mind into new and productive ways of thinking about your work is tiring, not to mention the fact that I burned through days’ worth of energy sweating through my dress while I waited for my turn at the lightning talks.

Attendees often talk about keeping the glow of a conference alive so as to keep the momentum going at work. That’s true for me as well, but my biggest takeaway from Confab is something a bit more hairy. I found myself drawn to the talks that dealt with being better at advocating for our work and improving our industry. As members of a field, we have definitely moved from simply defining content strategy and toward “defining ourselves,” as Margot Bloomstein put it so eloquently in her talk.

I’m thinking about Laura Creekmore, who told us plainly to get over ourselves as “artists” and learn to quantify the value of our work. Or Ronnell Smith, who bravely described the moments when he was fired for defending precursors of content strategy to the C-suite. Or Anne Lamott (ANNE LAMOTT!), who reminded us why we became writers (and how to get back to it). And the aforementioned Bloomstein, who argued that we improve our industry as a whole if we define our own specialties and boost those of others.

“If you used to write…get back to it!” –Anne Lamott (!) #confabmn #verklempt

A photo posted by @katiekeen on

I think of my own journey in putting together my lightning talk and discovering how much my current role has changed. It made me more than a little nostalgic, because I know that I’m dealing with larger challenges now, and although I’m down for solving them, there is no simple solution.

But then, I think of the great conversations I had at lunch, or at the snack bar, or during a 5:30 a.m. taxi ride to the airport. I think of the strong group of colleagues I have right here in Boston, and the tacos and karaoke we’ll be sharing in the near future. (Not tacos and karaoke together, but—actually, that’s a great idea.) Finally, I think of Jonathon Colman’s opening keynote, reminding us that in the face of wicked ambiguity, “we solve problems together, or not at all.”

Why type when a :) does the trick?

This month marks the one-year mark for my mother and her first iPhone. She reluctantly joined the smartphone ranks when her full-keyboard cellphone, which we chose together because she’s a “serious texter,” gave out.  The person at the cell phone store got Mom up and running on her blue iPhone 5c, but she saved her real questions for my sister and I, who would be home soon for Thanksgiving.

Sure enough, shortly after we’d unpacked our suitcases, Mom called us back to her bedroom, where her iPhone was charging. As I focused on having Mom learn by doing, patiently instructing her on how to text a picture or compose a new email, my sister practically grabbed the iPhone out of our hands. “Wait, you are going to love this.”

She tapped through menus too quickly for my mother to follow. “There,” my sister said. “Now you have a keyboard full of smiley faces.” I rolled my eyes.

It turns out that turning my mom onto emojis is pretty much the best thing to happen to any communication, anywhere. The woman who has always loved to send a well-timed greeting card now has a whole new avenue on which she expresses herself, and she basically has been off to the races ever since that fateful day in November.

When ever I need some cheering up, I scroll through our text history and review her various ways of “just checking in.”

For instance, if I’m about to take a long plane ride:


Or if we’re reading the same sad book:


Or if I’m home with the flu:




Mom has managed to find an emoji for every occasion. She digs up the ones I never knew existed (,) and has co-opted others (,) as per personal brand. And, as far as I know, she has never used the .

So, Mom: !

Content strategy and content marketing walk into a bar…

There has been a lot of talk lately about the difference between content strategy and content marketing. A lot. Well-mannered missives have been fired by my colleagues in both fields, and perhaps the most prominent event thus far has been Kristina Halvorson’s SXSW talk, Go Home Marketing, You Are Drunk.

Around the time that Kristina was taking the stage in Austin, I was beginning my stint as a contributor to our company blog, wondering what I was getting myself into as the debate heated up in blog posts and on message boards. The post I was working on at the time wasn’t exactly Pulitzer material. What would my fellow content strategists think? Or for that matter, my friends from my past life as a journalist? Most importantly, what did it mean for my future as a writer?

I kept thinking back to that scene in Season 3 of Girls, when Hannah is talking to her fellow GQ “advertorial” writers about how they wound up there.

Was I having a Hannah Horvath moment of my own? After all, I get free snacks, too.

I don’t loose sleep over my writing career, because I’ve found fulfillment in the transition to content strategy. But here’s the thing: when you’re in-house, it’s a different landscape when it comes to content. Many of my company’s content marketing practices were well established long before they hired me as their first-ever content strategist. But, I’ve cheerfully championed the pillars of content strategy that we were missing, like a style guide and messaging standards. Meanwhile, my colleagues have zeroed in on my writing experience—that thing I was willing to cast aside for the sake of moving forward—as a thing to value.

Over time, I have played up the “expert writer” card and managed to establish myself as an editorial guide on whom my coworkers can rely for sound feedback without judgment. And, I’m pleased to say that the overall quality of our content has improved.

A consultant would move on to another client at this point, meanwhile my role has grown to include product marketing, with a strong emphasis on customer experience. My work has gotten even more interesting, and I can be very, very busy.

That means that, wearing my editor’s cap, I can’t be a gatekeeper through which all content flows—that was never intended to be my role—but I can be a resource for my coworkers, be it an extra set of eyes, or the ace in a hole to write a monthly blog post.

We’re not going to catch every typo, and I won’t be adding each and every one of my posts to my clips, but that’s not the point. I’ve learned that ours is a whip-smart content marketing team with larger, well-thought-out goals, and they are moving toward them with or without me. But, let’s be honest: they’re my goals, too, because we all want the company to thrive.

The best thing I can do for our team is support them and offer up the tools from my experience to help them succeed. I would think this excludes them from the same category as the companies that Kristina was lampooning in her slides, but someone wants to call our content marketing team “drunk,” fine. I’m buying their next round.

“Where are my panties?” and other questions raised by these sentient, connected times

Recently, I bought underwear from a certain online retailer, despite the fact that their models look nothing like me, and that they insisted on referring to my items as “panties.” I congratulated myself for saving time on a purchase at once mundane and personal. Plus, no one on the #1 bus needs to see me traveling home with a ridiculous hot-pink shopping bag that screams “I just bought panties—er, underwear!” Really.

As with most online merchants, this one sent me an email when my purchase shipped, and I eagerly subscribed to updates from USPS to find out when my delicate package would arrive. (I’m not saying I needed to do laundry, but I’m not not saying that, either.)

Tracking updates
Something is wrong here.

I observed with satisfaction as the parcel departed Ohio, made its way to New Jersey, and then landed in Boston. However, on the next update, it was back in Ohio. I started to worry.

Had they gotten the order wrong? Had there been a recall? I checked my order while at work, cringing as my “panties” came up on screen next to what I confirmed was the correct address. I checked the tracking status again and again as my order seemed to hover in limbo, unchanged over two weekdays.

This is the consequence of living in an era of knowing. At this very moment, without getting up, I can find out if there is a taxi nearby, whether the restaurant down the street has a table for two, or if the library has my book club’s next selection on its shelves. I can deposit a check and learn when the next bus is coming to the stop at the bottom of my street. I know so much already, and that doesn’t even count all of the babies’ first steps, Golden Globe outtakes, and George Takei updates that my friends are sharing on social media right now.

Sometimes, I find myself nearly paralyzed with knowing. I once nearly missed my stop on the subway because I was too busy comparing the pickup times on the three ride-service apps on my phone. I am confounded by the “real-time” MBTA signs claiming that a train is arriving, and yet it’s nowhere in sight. Should I walk instead? Grab a cab because the weather app tells me that it’s sleeting?

I wonder if, by knowing, we are all accelerating towards an era of disproportional impatience, where instant gratification can’t come fast enough. We only half joke when there isn’t an “app for that,” even when we’re talking about something preposterous, because we know it’s only a matter of time before there is.

Finally, my special delivery took a turn back toward Boston. When I saw that it was processing at my local post office, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’ll never know why my underwear took a detour back to Ohio, and I’m not sure I want to know, either.

Raising a glass to the Boston Phoenix

The art of ctrl-C and ctrl-V.

When the Boston Phoenix hired me in the pre-9/11 aughts, I had little more on my resume than a stint scooping ice cream in Harvard Square and some clips from an internship at a magazine. I suppose it was qualification enough for the position to push the weekly paper’s content online through some deft copying and pasting (learned on the job). But I was a shy 22 year old, humbled by the bylines that I carefully posted each week. Despite achieving some success as a writer for my college newspaper, I was still terrified of picking up the phone and getting a quote. Still, I proudly took home my measly paycheck, which went straight toward my Porter Square rent and my weekly supply of burritos from Anna’s Taqueria.

Last week, when I learned that the Phoenix has published its last issue, I fell into a state of mourning. The mere three years I spent there overlapped with those formative early-20s years of figuring out Who You Are, and for me, the paper was a guide to life, informing this recent grad on what to do in her spare time with a group of friends growing closer with every night out for beers, show attended at the Middle East, or odd film screening in a lost corner of town.

For someone who had not gotten her post-high-school rebelliousness out of her system during college, a job at the Phoenix was a countercultural balm. While my parents wished I was studying for the GRE or LSAT, I spent my nights playing drunken Jenga in my friends’ Somerville apartment and stumbling into work the next day—easy enough when the work day didn’t really start until 10:00 a.m.

Thumbnails cropped by yours truly.

I gradually learned that my coworkers were not giants to be sidestepped but kind and brilliant people from whom I could learn quite a bit and even earn their encouragement when I finally worked up the courage to pitch stories. After the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, I loaned my gym shoes to my boss so she could literally run out to get man-on-the-street interviews. From that day onward, I understood the importance and difference that good reporting could make, and the unique void that an alternative weekly can fill in uncovering hard truths.

When the day came for me to leave the Phoenix—I handed my resignation to the managing editor with a degree of smugness that I regret to this day—I was on my way to join the online team at “Frontline.” At that point, I had learned how to pick up the phone and get a quote, but I’d like to think I’d also learned to be a somewhat functioning colleague, despite my terrible inability to stay in touch over the years.

I continue to tell anyone who will listen that time spent at a paper or TV show is better than a degree from any journalism school, but the passing of the Phoenix underscores the old-media virtues of my advice. I am at a loss. Even though my career has taken me away from journalism and I’m thankful for the path I’ve taken, I can’t believe there won’t be a paper on Thursday.


Siri and I VS the world

I made no secret that I was sick of my sluggish iPhone 3G, and nearly as sick of hearing myself complain about it. It was a matter of practicality to be among the first to order the new iPhone 4S when it went on sale. I was less interested in Siri, the new voice command technology, than I was in having wi-fi again, and a faster phone, and a pretty sweet camera.

Still, it’s been fun to talk to Siri, whom I wished I could customize at first to talk more like K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider” until she started personalizing our chats. “I don’t know what you mean, Katie,” she’ll say, as if scolding me for even asking something unintelligible. It’s a boss/assistant relationship, in which I become resentful of her intransigence and she of my mumbling until she says something cute, like “all evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate,” when I ask her “what is the meaning of life?” We’re starting to develop a rapport.

For the most part, Siri and I talk about the weather, or where to find coffee, or whether the reminder I set for later today is accurate. I give Siri direct, explicit instructions, and she rewards me by getting it right the first time. She did not like it when I asked her to find Schweddy Balls ice cream nearby, answering curtly with another question, but I don’t think Siri watches “SNL” or eats Ben & Jerry’s, so that’s cool; we’re setting boundaries.

So, it’s with some agitation that I watch the Apple ad on television that advertises the voice command service. Their intent is to show how smart Siri is–so much so that she knows what you need, even if you can’t quite articulate it.

“I’m locked out,” a girl says helplessly, and Siri instantly finds locksmiths nearby. “We have a flat tire,” whines the man in the car, and help is just a hands-free phone call away.

I watch these simulations and wonder if the Siri I’m training would respond in kind. It’s great that Siri knows what the people in the commercial need even if they don’t, but I feel like practical reasoning is my job. I like to think that my Siri – who allegedly adjusts to match my own intelligence, is starting to think like I do.

To the locked-out girl, perhaps my Siri would say, “Should I call your father? Again?” or “Which friend should I call – you did leave an extra set of keys with someone, right?” Or, in the case of a flat, “why are you talking to me when you could get out of the car and look in your trunk for a spare?” or maybe, “Here’s how you use a jack. Good luck.” Yep, that’s my girl.

Spacedust in my eye #STS135

Space Shuttle launches were local news for those of us who grew up in Florida. As a grade school student, I barely understood the gravity of the Challenger disaster, only that a teacher was on board, making it doubly sad. We watched Discovery‘s debut — and the space program’s triumphant return — on a fuzzy 12″ tube TV in 5th grade math class. Our teacher, a former nun, said quietly, “if it’s your inclination to pray, now would be the time,” as the shuttle was about to lift off.

Then, we ran out of the classroom and into the brilliant sunshine, catching a glimpse of the bright-white object in the sky just as it disappeared into the stratosphere. We could only imagine what it was like for our parents to witness the Moon landing, but this was the space flight we knew — inspiring and mind expanding, and today — for the time being, anyway — over.

During today’s launch, surrounded by kids who, like me, do not know a world without the shuttle, I realized maybe it is time to retire a program that’s nearly as old as I am. Sigh. For now, I’ll get by with Battlestar Galactica on Netflix streaming, dreaming of the day when “spool up the FTL drive” becomes part of real-life space vernacular.

Leaving a testimonial for Friendster

I first heard about Friendster on the way home from a show at the Paradise. It was a Sunday night, around midnight, and this tragically hip guy on his way back from a “bender in New York” was hitting on me while we waited for the Red Line. I must have impressed him with my music taste, because as we neared my stop, he asked “are you on Friendster?” When I asked what it was, he said, “ah, nevermind.” And that was that.

A few months later, I received an invite from a friend and joined. It was pretty much the first online profile I’d filled out anywhere, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would put there. Long before our Facebook updates represented an idealized version of ourselves, this was our carefully crafted virtual face to the select few: friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, some of whom I even met in person and dated. “Yep,” I tell today’s digital neophytes who have never even heard of Friendster, “it was totally a legit dating site; a less sketchy version of Match, since you supposedly knew everyone via someone else.”

But then came MySpace and Facebook, and the rest is history. This week, with Friendster sending an email announcing major changes and the opportunity to export my profile in order to preserve its contents, I couldn’t help looking back at that snapshot in time, when I posted a old baby photo as my profile picture, not thinking for a second that someone would assume it was my kid. I was simply “Katie” with two “Sarah”s and a “Sara” on my friend roster. I felt a near-total sense of anonymity and trolled groups that matched my interests with abandon.

This week’s Friendster email is, in effect, a death notice. Most of us had forgotten about the site, and the email just calls attention to its irrelevance. Although the message promises a “new and improved,” “brand new experience,” I wonder how they’ll gain back their once-substantial following by removing everything about it that was personal and quaint (remember how pissed we all were when it started tracking what profiles we’d viewed? Or the panic that ensued when they added the option to include our – gasp! – last names?). In terms of what Friendster possibly has to offer us in 2011, MySpace Music it is not, but I’ll stick around to see what’s next.

An ode to slow computing

The other day, a coworker asked me if I’d heard of “slow computing.”
“Is that like ‘slow food?'” I asked, assuming he was joking. However, despite my finding no evidence to support this via my semi-slow Internet connection (more on that in a moment), it appears my colleague was being sincere. “Yeah!” he said excitedly, “It’s exactly like that.” Apparently, some people deliberately use slower computers to mitigate the pace of their hectic lives.

dino parade

When I started to consider the idea, I could see its benefits; the immediacy of today’s interactive, multi-modal life means that we are not only receiving and processing information faster than ever, but we habitually multitask thanks to the temptation of having everything at our fingertips. For instance, say we’re waiting for Photoshop to open. It’s the perfect time to check Twitter, maybe compose an email or two, and peek at our smart phone.

Lately, this juggling approach has bled into other parts of my life; my morning ritual now consists of simultaneously boiling water for coffee, juicing an orange, and checking my email. It’s a beautiful breakfast ballet – until I’m distracted by an email that triggers a reminder to grab something from my room to bring to work, and then the kettle is whistling and I’ve got orange pulp on my iPad and…crap.

Maybe slow computing isn’t such a bad idea. In fact, I may be living the slow computing dream and not even realizing it. Partly out of financial necessity, and partly out of stubbornness, I’m composing this post on my five-year old Macbook, which I have painstakingly upgraded over time, so that it must be closer to, say, a three-year-old Macbook. Then there’s my iPhone 3G, already a classic, with its busted wi-fi antenna and a cell signal that really is only tolerable when I turn off the 3G.

So here I am, using AT&T’s “Edge” network, sitting with my five-year-old computer that’s picking up a signal from an equally old and temperamental wireless router. I sometimes spend minutes (!) waiting for Web pages to load. I instinctively fall back on that multitask crutch, but since so many of the more appealing time-wasters require an Internet connection, I sit and wait.

Is this making me more patient? Do I feel more relaxed? Not really. As soon as the connection revives, I’m Googling “iPhone 5 release date” and fixing another cup of coffee while I wait for the results to load.


Remembering Clif

On September 11, 2001, after losing what was left of my breakfast in the Boston Phoenix ladies’ room, I passed Clif Garboden on the way back to my desk. Seeing my pallor, he reminded me in his gruff yet reassuring way, “the Sun’s going to come up tomorrow.”

I hadn’t been with the paper for very long, but it was a life perspective I’d come to expect from Clif who, from his time as a young journalist in the early days of the alternative press, had seen his share of crises, both in the world and in the newsroom. There, presiding from his outward-facing desk, he was the captain, with a sailor’s vocabulary and a get-it-done attitude no matter the situation, stormy or calm.

I like to think I’ve emulated these qualities in the jobs I’ve taken since my time at the Phoenix, persevering through tough projects with stoicism and toning down the profanity only when I realized that museum culture is a bit different from that of journalism.

Saddam's secret life: he hates hummus~I hope that my coworkers know that when I drop comic printouts around the office or forward a well-timed link, I tip my hat to Clif, who was quick with a bleedingly current photocopy (like the one here, which he wordlessly dropped on my desk shortly after the Iraq war began) and more recently, emails with news links that perfectly tapped our senses of outrage or humor. Living so close to the news like all editors do, Clif easily found the snarky underbelly when things turned particularly absurd, and nothing was off limits.

On Friday, as another Big Story bubbled over in Egypt, I received word that Clif had passed away. A flood of sorrowful tweets, status updates, and blog postings have quickly followed, and more will surely come. It’s a testament to a great boss and editor who managed to make hundreds of colleagues feel his sincere concern and enthusiasm for their continued well being, personally and professionally. We’ll miss you, Clif.
“We Never Got Rich, But We Are Going To Heaven: Farewell, Clif Garboden (1948-2011)” PHLOG, February 11, 2011
“Off the press! My life and good times in alternative journalism” Boston Phoenix, November 15, 2006