No More Generalists

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

There are no more generalists. Ok, a bold statement, not entirely true. There’s still a Sears. There’s still a Macy’s. There’s still a guy with that truck that says Handyman on the side who drives around the neighborhood.

But in the online world, rapidly becoming the only world that matters to many of us, specialists rule the day. If you are a photographer, you have focused on a certain population, like newlyweds, or snowboarders. If you need to do Google Adwords, you call an Adwords guy. If you want to send a personalized magazine-like email like I’m doing a lot of lately, you call the email marketing guy. Coders specialize in WordPress or Ruby on Rails. Companies dedicate themselves solely to task-management applications.

There’s a reason for this. It starts out being technical, because when you’re creating something specialized, like an app that does your books, you need to know a lot about the needs of the people who would use such an app. But the reasons for this specialization soon …

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Connected and Disconnected

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

We feast on social media networks, chewing through posts, texts, moments, images. We are insatiable, worse than zombies eating brains. It’s scary as a zombie movie, but scarier still is the possibility that we aren’t consuming anything –  the networks are consuming us. Watch a Southern California kid crossing the street while texting, oblivious to traffic, and you will certainly see a type of zombie.

Attention is the rarest form of generosity, wrote philosopher Simone Weil. It can be argued that we have become quite miserly. Since my nose is in my iPad now, does that mean that I care less about you?

The NY Times recently ran an opinion piece by Jonathan Safran Foer. He pointed out that most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. Traveling across the country to visit a friend was a bit of a bother, but a telephone conversation was a reasonable substitute. Better yet, when we didn’t want to speak with that person anyway, leaving a message on their phone machine …

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The Complexity of Science in 140 Characters

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

Last week’s post on Medium about science and pop culture stirred up something of an online storm. Some scientists on Twitter felt that they ought to be left alone to do science and didn’t need to communicate all that much with the public. Other scientists and science journalists seemed happy, because the more talk about science, the better.

I felt the disconnect keenly. Those doing science often think one way about communication and those who to write about science have a different view. It’s not often an easy relationship between these two camps. You want a couple examples? Ed Yong writes ‘A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists’ with the idea of offering to optimize conversations between scientists and journalists. Chad Orzel fired back on his blog that some of the guide rubbed him the wrong way. Emily Darling writes in The Conversation that It’s Time for Scientists to Tweet. RealScientists has a Twitter stream that does just that. While over on Ben Lillie’s Tumblr, he writes compellingly about why one of the world’s …

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Why Science Needs Help Talking About Itself

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

Let’s get past the idea that there are still people who believe that climate change science is a hoax. Let’s get past the notion that evolution might be a mere theory that has to compete with creationism in some schools.

I am taking a deep breath and setting both of those things aside for a moment, because I want to talk to the scientists out there who are doing world-shaking work. Hello?  Does anybody know your names?

Well, sometimes. If you’ve done a TED talk recently or aTEDx, like Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, or if you’ve written a landmark book like Frank Wilson, and can give provocative talks about human intelligence, yeah, ok, some people know about you. If you are Kate McAlpine and make a rap video about the Large Hadron Collider and it’s really good, seven million people will watch it on YouTube. Yes: Seven million. A rap video about physics. It was good enough to make me laugh and cry at the same time.

If you’re a charismatic superstar astrophysicist …

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Thinking Out Loud

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

I am thinking out loud. Reading the Steve Jobs biography. (The good one, not one of the knockoffs.)

Thinking about this quote: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Attributed in various forms to engineers, thinkers, inventors. How do we go about inventing the future? There is a stew of culture that gives rise to huge movements – it’s a heaving mess, too big to see when you’re in it. Steve Jobs lived in the intersection of hippie and engineer culture, a California mix tape of brainy nerds meeting in Palo Alto garages, millionaires minted on an idea, a design notion, a mind-blip that blew up to become a world-dominating industry. How do you incubate that? You can’t. At Xerox PARC they bitmap the screen, Jobs rips it off, and you get fonts and graphics and a mouse to point at it all. Replicate that moment? You can’t. It’s immoral, it’s Picasso saying good artists borrow, great artists steal. You can’t put enough coffee in …

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500 Words: What You Will Be Known For

500 Words on Thursday | Written by Lee Schneider

Some people have a billion clicks on YouTube. Others have 137,000 followers who read their blog. Who would you want to be?

If you use gmail, Google is analyzing your emails. Facebook is tracking your preferences in friends and products. Data is being gathered about you all the time. My past, and yours, are stored online. I wrote few cartoon scripts more than two decades ago. The series was called ThunderCats. Look for ThunderCats and me on the Internet, and you may assume this is what I am known for.  Even Twitter can make your career or take it down. Ask Anthony Weiner.

So it’s all out there, for all time, moving in powerful social currents. What do you want to make of it?

Jenna Marbles, the subject of a New York Times profile this past weekend, is the person I mentioned above with a billion clicks. She does sharp character comedy as nasty/good as Sarah Silverman or the late Jonathan Winters. She doesn’t appeal …

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500 Words: Going Viral with the Power of (more than) One

500 Words on Thursday  | Written by Lee Schneider

What makes a video go viral?

I was at lunch with a prospective client the other day and we were conspiring about how to get his videos more exposure. I suggested putting cats in them, but it appears that I am wrong about that.

According to Jonah Berger, a marketing prof at the Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, there is a science to creating viral popularity. Cats don’t enter into it much, he writes, but human behavior does quite a bit.

He says that social currency is one essential factor for viral success. People tend to share things online that make them look good or provide tips and info to others. That’s why videos titled ‘Best of [fill in the blank]’ and ‘Top 10 [list of things]’ are winners – the title alone tells you that you know something, are a smart curator, and have info worth sharing. If your video has an emotional component it can also go viral. Outrage works, as in Dave Carroll’s …

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Get the Guns Out of Your Portfolio

500 Words on Thursday | Written by Lee Schneider 

People have the right to bear arms, but I don’t want guns in my stock portfolio, particularly in the 529 college savings plan that I am starting for my youngest son.

Why should we fund his college education with profits from gun makers like Smith & Wesson?

From a financial perspective, it makes a lot of sense to invest in Smith & Wesson (returning 16% over the last decade), Kraft Foods (highly-profitable maker of addictive crap that is killing us), Philip Morris (selling cigarettes to kids overseas; highly profitable) and Chevon (nice-talking oil company that is still killing the planet while providing solid returns to investors.) Strum, Ruger & Company, a gun maker located just a short car ride away from the Newton school shootings, returned 48.5% to investors over the past year.

In the world of investments big returns are good. It shouldn’t matter how you make a killing in the market, right?  Well, I think it no longer makes sense to fund a child’s …

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500 Words: What Is Ours and What is Not

500 Words on Thursday  | Written by Lee Schneider

The end came quickly, after a long illness. The eulogies are already starting. Some of us are dressing in black. Perhaps you’ve heard. Google Reader is dead. Formal burial is scheduled for July 1.

Oh, you don’t care? Well, maybe I can help you here.

Google Reader was useful cloud app with, apparently, a dwindling user base. It allowed you to collect and read blog posts and articles from thousands of sources. Now, as Fast Company puts it, it’s see you later, aggregator.  If I were making a tribute film for Reader, the kind they play at the Academy Awards to honor the dead, one of the clips would show me in 2010, at the beginning of Red Cup Agency, when I was using Reader to gather articles by the boatload to post on Twitter for clients. Reader brought me the 140 characters I needed about babies, pregnancy, adventure, wine, and organic food. It was the little information engine that could. I depended on it.

Big mistake. When you depend on …

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500 Words: How much of our lives should go online, and should we try to stop it?


You are living two lives. One is the flesh and blood life you use to enjoy the scent of a spring day. The other is the life you lead on a global level, online. Weirdly, they are merging, becoming equally powerful and equally valid. You can’t smell a spring day online yet, but I’m sure they’re working on it.


With every click, heaps of data are being harvested about you. Your real world location is tracked using your cell phone. Your interests are recorded in pageviews. Your most embarrassing YouTube fetishes are a matter of record at Google, and they are for sale. The reasons for this data Mardi Gras were recently stated well in the New York Times by Stephen Baker.  “Growing legions of marketing consultants are pushing social media as the can’t-miss future. They argue that pitches are more likely to hit home if they come from friends on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Google+.  That’s the new word of mouth, long the gold standard in marketing.” Those people you call friends? Actually, they’re brand evangelists working for free.


But that might not be true. On …

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