The Case for Ambiguity

These days it seems imperative to have an opinion â€” one that is clear, informed, and impassioned. Silence can be deafening, especially when you have platform and privilege. Pick your side wisely.

With more free time than usual this summer, I’ve posted regularly on social media about the current state of affairs, sharing resources and unsolicited opinions.

I write declaratively, post black squares in solidarity, and happily engage in discussion to defend whatever stance I’ve taken.  

Recently, I’ve begun to question my motives and wonder if anything I’m saying is actually helpful. Friends have remarked on my conviction in advocating for Black Lives Matter, police abolition, and voting rights. These comments make me a bit squeamish, not because I disagree with their observations, but because I know I haven’t done much more than talk. I try not to be dogmatic or forceful in my opinions; in person, I actually speak quite tentatively with many disclaimers. Online, though, everything comes across more definitively. I do support Black Lives Matter and significant reforms within our criminal justice system, but I’m far from knowing enough to rest my case on it.

This gradual blurring between perception (an algorithmic consistency that becomes affiliated with one’s identity) and reality (a more inconsistent, messier version of its virtual counterpart) is concerning but expected. Our lives in the public sphere, increasingly mediated by technology, train us to subconsciously project a more ideal version of ourselves. Being inherently more indecisive and meandering, I’ve curated my ideal self as a neater, more solid identity, one that is quick to have a “take” on things.

Given that the Internet tends to select for people with an opinion that magnifies opposition, this naturally creates an environment where we are quick to make assumptions about others based on cherry-picked statements. You’re either anti-racist or racist. You take COVID seriously or you don’t. You’re voting for Donald Trump or you’re not. Life presented in these binary terms is deceivingly simple, gratifying, and… misleading.


To be clear, none of this really matters. What I or what 99% of people post about does not actually change anything. I’m embarrassed by the amount of time I’ve spent crafting foolproof statements to demonstrate that I am on the “right” side of history. Who am I really convincing here? Empowering at best, performative at worst, the process of expressing anguish while people in power continue to make decisions in real life that we have little control over is more of a therapeutic, personal mind-clearing exercise than anything truly movement-building â€”  much like this post. At the end of a riveting speech, most people have not changed their minds and we’re still in the same predicament.

(Side note: this is not a piece about voting but one could argue that the real key to change is to vote the right people into power who make good decisions on our behalf! Are you registered?)

Not all this talk is for ill. I marvel at the range of topics we’re exposed to because of social commentary and engaged media consumption. Race relations. Anti-racism. Police budgets. The full history of slavery and emancipation. Healthcare disparity. Awareness can breed responsibility and these are important topics that deserve our full attention. But it’s precisely because these topics deserve more, and we have a limited ability to provide that attention, that so much is left to be desired.


Currently I’m reading Jenny Odell’s “How To Do Nothing”, a book about resisting the attention economy. It’s got me thinking about our obsession with efficiency, productivity, and connectivity. The ways in which we’re assaulted with information, news, texts, Slack messages, food deliveries etc. and the speed with which we get it all is a bit like drinking from a fire hose, pummeled by an enormous wave of information with no way to swallow / integrate it into our tiny frames of existence. We’re simply not equipped to calibrate such magnification. And yet we mistake this magnification for engagement.

“We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations – and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.”

– Jenny Odell 

Indeed, it’s harder to solve the world’s complex problems when our attention span is directly correlated with the speed at which we’re accustomed to receiving information. In fact, it seems that the conditions for change in the real world are antithetical to Internet culture â€” slow, unpredictable, very physical â€”  requiring mundane, less disruptive mechanisms for change like compromise, difficult conversations, and routine maintenance.

So if the Internet is not the answer, what is? My instinct says it’s investment in people, long-term movement building, and institutional change, the mechanics of which mostly lie beyond me. In this groundless moment, I’ve taken great solace in Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” which is a beautiful primer on Buddhist philosophy and resisting the need to grasp for certainty. Since we’re mostly accustomed to finding the answers to everything in a matter of minutes, this concept can be anxiety-inducing. But even science doesn’t know the answer definitively to most things today. So I’ll start by being okay with not knowing.

“If we begin to live like this, we’ll find that we actually can’t make things completely right or wrong anymore because things are a lot more slippery and playful than that. Everything is always ambiguous, everything is always shifting and changing, and there are as many different takes on any given situation as there are people involved.

Trying to find absolute rights and wrongs is a trick we play on ourselves to feel secure and comfortable… Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong?”

– Pema Chodron

For me, writing has always been a process of discovering, or convincing myself, what I think. (It’s also an extremely regenerative and therapeutic process that burns through the fog in my mind.) Because of this, what is posted here often displays a greater sense of certainty than what I actually feel. I don’t want to grow too attached to this addictive thrill of finding resolution through pruned essays and words. One of the greatest distortions of the Internet, like writing, is that our beliefs over time are flattened into something overly consistent for the purpose of fulfilling an argument or identity, which then strips us of the context we get when we’re alive and interacting with a more dynamic, ever-changing physical world.

This doesn’t mean I’m rejecting the Internet and its orb-flattening effect. Having a public platform to figure things out in real-time with others is actually a beautiful thing. But if there’s anything I’ve learned during this summer of quarantine, behind the looking glass, is to resist the need to put a dot on everything. The work is to create an environment out in the world and within ourselves that accepts and embraces the uncertainty of not knowing. Perhaps then we’ll have a space that is safe enough to engage in real dialogue â€” not just projection and ego-flexing â€” with greater compassion, discernment, and nuance.

“We’ve got nothing except our small attempts to retain our humanity, to act on a model of actual selfhood, one that embraces culpability, inconsistency, and insignificance.”

– Jia Tolentino

I miss being a person in the outside world, a place no less chaotic than the Internet, but at least not experienced through a screen. Being in quarantine for the last 5 months with minimal in-person interaction has certainly left me a bit deluded by the ‘looking glass’, slightly confused about the nature of reality and one’s self-importance behind an avatar. But who can blame us? Times are difficult, our neurons are frayed, and we’re buried alive in digital noise. 


I’d be remiss to conclude without recommending three phenomenal books that have shaped my thinking for this piece:

How to Do Nothing, Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell 
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, by Jia Tolentino
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron

Mumbai Dispatch

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Photo Credit: Brianna Johnson

 

In late November, I was blessed with the opportunity to go on a week-long mission trip to Mumbai.

The trip was part of Redeemer Presbyterian’s short-term missions program, which coordinates dozens of trips each year to assist and serve international nonprofits and NGOs in various capacities.  Thanks to the generous support of family and friends who contributed financially and prayerfully to the cause, I was able to embark on this eye-opening journey into the heart of India.

Words can never adequately describe the full experience, but I attempted to share some highlights and takeaways. The following is adapted from an email I sent to supporters shortly after the trip:


 

IMG_9956With open hearts and minds, the Mumbai mission team traveled into the heart of India for Redeemer’s 4th mission trip centering on human and sex trafficking issues.

Our team of 13 doubled down on efforts to bring light to the victims of sex trafficking through spiritual, educational, and artistic activities. This was made possible thanks to a blossoming partnership with 2 partner organizations on the ground: International Justice Mission, and another organization (whose name must remain hidden for security purposes).

Our team split time between two locations: 3 days in Mumbai, and 4 days at a school/shelter in Badlapur (a small town about an hour outside of Mumbai).

Below is a day-by-day summary of how our time and dollars were spent.


 

Day 1: Context

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

We started our trip in the Red Light District of Kamathipura, Mumbai, arguably the world’s largest hub for sex trafficking (it is reported that 40% of the world’s human slaves live in India).

It’s an ironic truth that within the sprawling confines of Mumbai, there’s a booming industry – one that runs counter to the city’s moniker, “City of Dreams” – where thousands of women are stripped of their dreams through violence.

After worshipping at the Red Light District Church alongside women (some of whom still work in the brothels), we drove through the Red Light District’s noisy and winding roads. Though we were shielded from view in a car, the scene was a harrowing glimpse of the reality that some 300,000 women experience daily in Mumbai.

Women stood wistfully on the streets, platform-heeled & sari-bedazzled, while men casually eyed ‘goods for consumption’; it was an image reminiscent of a meat market. Grotesque as it was, what we saw doesn’t come close to capturing the full situation. All-told, the Red Light District houses more than 1000 brothels, with most hidden from sight within the District’s dark alleys.


 

Days 2 – 5: Badlapur 

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

We traveled to the ATC Village*, a recently-built educational facility an hour outside of Mumbai, where approximately 40 rescued children of women in prostitution receive a free, high-quality education.

Here we spent the next 4 days leading Bible Study, financial literacy classes, arts and crafts activities, and homework help. Most of the girls’ mothers are still enslaved or undergoing HIV/AIDS treatment. Despite their lack of parental figures, they were eager to learn: many speak fluent English and have dreams to attend university, have a career, and become financially independent.

At one of the shelters we visited, rescued women underwent job training and learned to make beautiful handmade quilts, jewelry, and handbags, with the ultimate goal of creating their own businesses.

To top it off, our Events team “made it rain” with sprinkles and glitter at each of the three facilities (including a shelter home for rescued women and their children as well as a dedicated home for HIV positive children). Dressed to the tee in fedoras, glowsticks, and fancy shades, the girls (and boys!) had a blast posing at our instant Polaroid Photo Booth.


 

Days 6 and 7: Mumbai Slums  

DSC00083If the first part of our trip was “service”, then our last two days were serious “education”.

On the final leg, we returned to Mumbai and served food to the homeless at a food mobile truck. We also met with International Justice Mission (IJM) to learn more about their unique 4-prong strategy to protect the poor from violence.

Not only does IJM conduct raids to rescue victims from sex trafficking, they actively work to change the system through prosecution of the perpetrators, legal advocacy, and policy-making. As of December 2015, they’ve trained 10,000 Indian police officers to more effectively enforce the law and swiftly bring perpetrators to justice!

Equally important is their rehabilitation work that restores current victims to their community through educational and health services. We were blessed with the opportunity to meet with a leader of one of these Mumbai outreach ministries, Pastor Guy. Guy is an inspiring and energetic soul with a heart for the poor.

He took us to a slum community where he ministers; there we met with a family who graciously welcomed us into their home and we then prayed over each other.

Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to purchase a plentiful stock of groceries for the family, as well as a new motorcycle for Pastor Guy! We hope that these gifts can nourish the family’s health and facilitate ease and convenience for Pastor Guy’s work in the slums.


 

Thank You

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

More than anything, this trip reinforced a nascent view of mine about simple grace and generosity. There were several moving moments, but one in particular stands out.

At an evening devotional with the girls, after prayer and worship, the group of 40 girls prayed over each of us. The fervor and depth of their murmurs were more heartfelt than anything I could ever muster! It hit me then: this belief that we came to “bless” was a misnomer, for along the way, I received more than I gave.

“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”

– 2 Corinthians 8

More importantly, I left Mumbai with hope that organizations like the ones we worked with are providing victims with opportunity to start new lives in a protected environment of love.

IJM provides a great overview of the human trafficking issue at large, if you’d like to learn more. While more healing is needed to restore the spirits of those affected by the scourge of human slavery, I am personally blessed by the “votes of confidence”: friends who listened to my doubts trusted counselors who nudged me to take this trip, as well as all who generously donated to the cause. Words never suffice, but thank you.


 

*Christian organizations like the ones we worked with, have recently been the target of hardline grassroots organizations who oppose spiritual freedom in India. A partner organization’s name and its facilities are hidden in this post to protect its identity.

I’m running the NYC Half Marathon

…in less than 2 weeks!

I’ll be carrying some winter pudge; nonetheless, I’m excited and honored to be running on behalf a charity team close to my heart, Apex for Youth (Apex).

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Apex is a mentoring organization for underserved Asian American youth that I’ve been involved with for 3 years as a middle school mentor. My mentee Melanie (pictured at right) and I have been together since she was in 6th grade, and it’s been a lot of fun to learn and grow with each other.

I am less than $500 from my fundraising goal, and accepting last-minute donations here.

Your donation will help me cross the finish line but more importantly, will help sustain the many youth enrichment programs that Apex runs. Anything you can spare is truly appreciated, even a simple word of encouragement!

Donate here and learn more about this wonderful organization.

Otherwise, if you’re in NYC the morning of March 15, please meet me at the finish line on Water Street and Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. There is no formal reunion area, so if you do come let me know. We’ll meet and snap a sweaty selfie or something.

To movement!
– L

The Most Influential Things I Read In 2014

This year, instead of sharing some of the personal milestones experienced in 2014, I’ve decided to compile a few of my favorite reads.

We are what we read, and these 12 thought-provoking and compelling essays helped shape my perspective as the events of the year unfolded, shedding new light when I veered astray.

As we turn the page to a new year, I hope a few of these digital treats provide literary inspiration— as it did for me — to make the most of this one beautiful life we have.

kalos kai agathos

Alas, Life

In 2014, I enjoyed the exhilarating, at times torturous, freedom of singlehood.

While it’s been fun, this NYT Modern Love essay echoed a nagging worry that perhaps many other single women experience: are we becoming selfish cat women?

“I worried that my single years were shaping me, hardening me into a woman too finicky and insular for a lifetime partnership.”

Reading this piece reinforced the notion that while being single can be hard, sometimes all you can do is simply learn to do your best and leave it at that. And there’s value in that.

———

Along similar lines, Joan Didion’s classic 1961 essay on self-respect was a go-to as I continued shedding a number of pleasant certainties, an act I now associate with the growing pains of adulthood. To quote the lady herself,

“I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, and that passive virtues would guarantee me happiness, honour, and the love of a good man.”

But to be freed from the expectations of others, to give back to ourselves — there lies the great singular power of self-respect. Thank you, Joan Didion.

———

Having a shitty day (literally)? Roll with the punches. Take a line from improv. Life is funny, and the only way to keep a scene going is to say “Yes, and…”

Questioning Habits and Beliefs

Why go out? Especially when it’s cold and PJs are so much comfier. As an introvert, it’s always kind of a personal victory when I decide to go out for a night on the town since 9 times out of 10, I come home more depleted than energized. In this hilarious and super real essay, writer Shelia Heti posits that we should go out precisely because we fall short, because we want to learn how to be good at being people, and moreover, because we want to bepeople.

———

On that note when we do socialize, why do we drink? To feel liberated for a fast second, only to be entirely useless the next day? What does it do for us?

I justify why I drink because I’m stressed and need a drink to calm down. But it turns out that there are legitimate spiritual reasons for drinking in our quest for ritual and self. Read this and drink in peace.

The expanse between 10 pm when we first left our cramped apartments in search of an ecstatic experience until 4 am when the bars closed was what the ancient Celts called a “thin place” and a “thin time” — places and times where the veil between heaven and earth, between the temporal and eternal, wear thin.

———

Stereotypes. We all have them, so how are they formed and how can we correct them?

“Jews are so crafty and short; of course they’d succeed at basketball! Asians are so intelligent and short; why would they be playing basketball?”

This smart, thoughtful NPR piece uses the Jew-Asian basketball analogy as an example of why we need to ask questions that expose where our stereotypes have disguised themselves as explanations, calling us to search for the real explanations, in all their complexity.

Technology and our Networked Society

2014 marked immense progress in technology, including the reveal of a new Apple Watch and a record $22 billion buyout of mobile messenger app WhatsApp. But is it technology we’re obsessed with or the consumer-ification of tech?

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Some of the most interesting stuff I read showcased a growing gap between what we think of traditional tech and its evolution into tech as a “service”. (Think Uber-type services.)

Paralleling the arc of manufacturing to services, this shift has created a deep rift between old and new companies, hardware vs. software, enterprise vs. consumer-focused businesses. At its core, it raises the question of whether this brave new world is really making our lives all that much better… or if we’re simply creating more apps that cater to our instant gratification impulses.

Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem is a fascinating NYT magazine article penned by a member of the new tech elite that nicely summarizes this old vs. new rift.

———

A major trend to watch in 2015 is algorithmic accountability. It’s not just an Internet issue, it’s a human rights issue. Read how it may have affected when, where, and how you heard about the Ferguson protests in the aptly-named, What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson by sociologist Zeynep Tufecki.

———

A larger global transformation is taking place, thanks in part to the growth of the Internet economy. At the center, is a frayed tug-of-war between old power and new power.

Understanding New Power lays out the framework of this emerging new order. An important read for anyone wanting to participate.

On old age and death

It’s morbid, I know. But in reading about death and what those on the brink of it value, I am reminded that we have this one precious life which can be ripped from us at any moment. So, why not spend it on things that make it meaningful?

Take it from this old man, he’s learned a thing or two.

———

These last two selections brought tears to my eyes.

What the Dying Really Regret, written by a hospice chaplain who spends time with patients in their final months, puts body shaming…to shame.

“There are many regrets and unfulfilled wishes that patients have shared with mein the months before they die. But the stories about the time they waste hating their bodies, abusing it or letting it be abused — the years people spend not appreciating their body until they are close to leaving it — are some of the saddest.

What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other.

———

Finally, this Father’s Day account from a journalist whose father’s health is faltering, struck me, for one because the author’s background (a second-generation Asian American growing up with traditional scholarly parents) paralleled mine. His advice deserves extra attention:

Make peace with your family, whatever that looks like, if it’s at all possible. Make amends, forgive others and forgive yourself. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Reach out now. Our time is limited. And even though I know this in my bones, I have to remind myself. All of this will pass.

But here we are.

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Onwards

I wonder why I take the time to put pen to paper and share these things. I’m well aware that artfully-worded essays won’t change our circumstances nor make life easier, but time and again, I say the same thing.

A well-told narrative, framed from a lucid and sincere perspective, can lead to wisdom and a higher order of understanding. Or at the very least, a reminder that we’re not alone.

Ahoy, 2015!

A Note On #Techies

 “We should interrogate the code of cyberspace as we interrogate the bills of Congress.”

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Last week I joined 70,000 others in Austin for the interactive rodeo known as SXSW, a breeding ground for ideas & creativity. This meant a lot of pedicabs, food trucks, open bar parties, and hashtags.

A lot of my friends have asked what the experience was like. Questions range: What did you learn? What’s the next big startup?  Was it overrun by hipsters? Did you eat a 3D Oreo? It’s like I had been hurdled into the outer reaches of space and back to return & report on the other-worldly activities of those “techies”.

IMG_2891The fascination is understandable. It’s not everywhere you see people wearing Google Glass and dancing with robots like it’s perfectly normal. SXSW represents everything emerging, innovative, and techie….buzz words of the decade.

I’ve decided to share a few thoughts on the conference – both positive and negative – because there is clearly a curiosity. But my commentary is less about the festival itself and more about  tech as a “phenomenon” (spurred by an observation that the term “techie” has been rabidly used in recent months).

Lesson 1. South by Southwest is not so much about innovation in tech as it is about innovation in marketing. 

When did all this nerdy stuff become cool? One word: brands. Years before I even touched a computer, South by Southwest was just a humble little conference fostering relationships between indie filmmakers, bootstrapped technologists, and garage bands.

A purist would say these early builders are the real technologists, the ones who actually built the memory chips that make up each of our computers. Since the dot com era, however, that definition has changed. Marketers have accelerated the mass commodification of “pure” technology with their ability to package previously bulky tech items into hip and accessible tools for all. At SXSW, it’s the marketers who now run the show by connecting with the early adopters whose products they evangelize, and then ultimately attract mainstream attention. We all buy into it.

My personal gripe with today’s loose application of “techie” is that those who self-appoint that term, including myself, often only understand the external aspects of technology- the result of the internal wirings, but not the wirings themselves. As consumers, our understanding is rather limited to the outer ecosystem of online communities, landing pages, and sharing platforms.

But I digress. I guess it doesn’t really matter who “techies” are anymore. We’ve moved into a world of platforms and social feed-based behavior that allows anyone to create without knowing a line of code. Which means that aside from developers and designers, most of us don’t actually spend time building like the Leonardo da Vincis of the dot com era…and don’t need to. Have a computer? Claim your domain!

Which leads to my second point: Tech is not limited to hipsters.

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One of the strangest (and clearly most ingenious) selfies I snapped in Florida several years ago.

A recent phrase I’ve heard to characterize tech’s intruding influence on cities is “hood to hipster”. It implies that technology has resulted in increased gentrification, which the numbers (sadly) do support.

Admittedly, there were a lot of bikes, Warby Parker glasses, and converses at SXSW. And yes, participants in this “brave new world” are often SEO, CMS, Java, and Twitter gurus, overlapping with members of the “#selfie, #hashtag #excessive, Trader Joe’s” demographic.

The problem with describing tech as a strictly hipster phenomenon is that it precludes tech’s reach. The people who are going to adopt something early are often going to be upper-class “hipsters” with the means to. But as technology seeps into more areas of our life, it will inevitably become the underpinning of every industry. Tech is not so much an industry but a lifestyle everybody, regardless of class, will be adapting to.

This is why the public sector’s role in technology is crucial. The only way technology’s benefits can be experienced beyond a select population is when government prioritizes basic infrastructure upgrades that increase access to fast, reliable Internet, while implementing education training programs that make the less technologically-inclined prepared for tech-related jobs.

Chelsea Clinton noted in her keynote at SXSW that the distinction between “technologists” and “policy makers” is a false dichotomy. The “hood to hipster” phrase excuses the responsibility we each have to learn about this new world. There’s no excuse: we are all technologists.

So, what gives?

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The Spotify House at SXSW

Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”.  Even this accurate depiction of an important tech issue leaves me stuck. Pitting the old tech guard against today’s hungry youth yields nothing but balding folks angrily shaking their fists at millennials, a hardly desirable solution.

I don’t know the answer. One thing I do know: the new code of power lies in technology. Something we can all do, regardless of age, is to increase our tech literacy. Algorithms are the new gatekeepers: they affect our search results, what we read, what is deemed “news”.  That’s enormously powerful! To that end, we should be asking more than just “what is the news?” but “how did this information find me”? Understanding this basic code will set the framework for healthier, more proactive digital lives.

My overall feeling after leaving SXSW is a a mix of overwhelming awe at the explosive advances in tech, coupled with a cynicism that none of these advances are leading us toward a world all that meaningful. But my real angst comes from the frightening prospect that the majority of us, including mild consumers of technology like you and me, aren’t technologically literate enough to understand the algorithms controlling SO MUCH of our daily online lives. How does our current consumption feed future consumption? What is data being used for? When are algorithms harming us? (To learn more about algorithmic literacy, read this.) I also worry about the growing knowledge gap for those with absolutely zero technological prowess.

I’m aware of the irony. I work in technology and the very things I decry are fueled by my own actions: a love for the packaging & commodification of technology, which leads to a voracious appetite for more, which exploits our largest human vulnerabilities, which leads to compulsive behavior.  Yet that’s why I question it, knowing that speaking up is a privilege afforded to those with the luxury of access and with the hope that these questions can improve our evolving relationship with tech.

In 2013

IMG_0088For all its messiness, 2013 was a strangely awe-inspiring year. It was the year I found 3 professions, separately, in 3 very different industries. It was the year I failed, took a leap of faith into full-time writing, and discovered that it wasn’t for me. It was the year I lived in 3 apartments (6, if you count the 3 Air BnBs in San Francisco), started a group, and learned to like brussel sprouts. It was the year I traveled alone, got off Facebook, accepted that I am not Carrie Bradshaw. It was the year I became a public servant.

It was a year of relentless change.

I toasted to the occasion at a New York City bar. Like every other year, smooching couples basked in their “Auld Lang Syne” moment. I took note of those other trusty sidekicks. The buzzing ones. The plastic babies clamoring for our attention, crying “How dare we live in the moment”. This was the year we reflexively gave in, coddling our smartphones shortly after the midnight kiss because the moment is not to be lived; it’s to be created.

The moment has become a customized stream, a fully immersive sensory experience sprouting from multiple devices and directions. The moment is filtered, with selfies never more beautiful, words never more prophetic. Gifted to you, me, everyone – the most democratic of platforms – it’s social.  2013 was the year the megaplatform ruled the Internet, and we, the people, developed our megaphones. The once-scrappy kids on the block (Facebook, Twitter) became the establishment. We created a life by documenting and connecting because our lives are better when shared, if slightly embellished. No longer a phenomenon, the sight is ubiquitous: bouncing thumbs on the subways, streets, and most pervasively, our heads.

I suppose we celebrate the year’s end because it’s proof that we’ve lived and have more to live in the next. But does proof lie in the act or the memory? Now that 2013 is over, I wonder – if I don’t write this post and preserve the moments- will the year’s significance be lost?

These are tough questions that may not be resolved this year, next, or anytime soon. But we can aspire to greater conscientiousness and become regular customers of our own repair, all together now, tapping once, twice, thrice to the beat and eventually finding our balance to this strange but beautiful amorphous dance of life.

2014 will be the year of liberation. Carpe diem.

Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

I’ve developed a theory that if people can’t sit through a 30-minute meal without touching their phones, they are OSDs (Over-Stimulated Disturbances). Sounds a little like LSD, and appropriately so; our phones are quickly turning us into walking drug addicts.

But who am I to quip? I’m constantly responding to emails on the fly, tweeting,  connecting – it’s a part of work, daily existence.

Connection is a loaded word these days. Social platforms tout it as part of their mission. But what does it mean to truly connect? On Twitter, it means favoriting bursts of 140 snippets. In person, it means having the patience to listen to long, circuitous babbles that are often far less witty, relevant, or sharable.

It’s much easier to fall in love with the former.

One question I’m tackling at work is how to effectively use social media to enhance connection with an audience. Sounds nice in theory but in practice, virtual connection entails something entirely different from a meaningful in-person relationship. Just because I like Red Cross on Facebook doesn’t mean I will spend a dime or a minute of my time volunteering for a cause.

So, I’m going out on a limb and positing that the greatest function social media can serve is to get people away from social media, offline, and into the actual lives of others.

What I mean is that social media should spur offline activity. A company’s goal shouldn’t be to stick people in an unending spiral of Twitter-Facebook-Instagram-YouTube, repeat 100 times until dizzy. That quickly creates obsessive, neurotic, OSD mental cases (raise your hand if you’re one already – – me!).

From a business perspective, it’s no use to Oreo, for instance, to get people to watch its Daily Twist campaign 50 times if no one ever actually buys a box of Oreos.  But by showing the social value of doing so- rewarding users who buy a box and snap a picture of them consuming it in fun ways- Oreo creates a win-win situation. They make money, and you’re presumably happier because now you are having fun with friends.  That’s real social mixed with virtual interplay.

So, is this the modern-day version of connection? Virtual and physical worlds feeding one other, transposing offline activities to the online world, and vice-versa? I suppose so, since these days “it never happened if it’s not online”.

I say this with a bit of cynicism, but the truth is, it’s unrealistic to go anywhere these days without a phone notification calling our name.  Like it or not, our new definition of connection needs to take into account the ubiquitous gadget in the room, while finding a way to channel its use in a healthy way.

Social media is the digital version of junk food. It’s created a habit of mindless consumption. “Once you pop you can’t stop!” But no, we must stop. Lest we further descend down the rabbit hole and emerge into a society disconnected from our most basic human existence.

Set aside a phone and connect with reality. It’s about balance and there lies our challenge.

How do you use social media to enhance connection? Have you found it an effective, or distracting, tool? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below. 

The Value of Social

I’ve been on a “social media cleanse” since Monday. Not a full-out purge, just a mini-cleanse to rejuvenate. (That person on a juice cleanse…at the bar? That’s me.)

I’ve removed the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone. It means I’m still able to go on these networks via desktop but also removes the temptation to compulsively, incessantly, maniacally graze through an unending stream of (mostly) uninteresting updates on-the-go. It’s a small move, but proven immensely helpful.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot gives the specs on NYC gov social media engagement.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot gives the specs on NYC gov social media engagement.

My cleanse lasts a week. On Monday, I’ll be back on the social grid, starting at NYCEDC as manager of social media and content. My task is to develop their social media, blog, and content marketing strategy, which will require full immersion in these platforms.

Though I sometimes decry the impertinent nature of social media content, I do believe in its value. The problem is I can never explain it. Does its primary value lie in the human capital that powers it? Its technological ability to surface interesting content? Its power to connect?

My real reason for disconnecting this week is to determine the void social media fills, if any. As I pull back the curtain and prepare to step behind the scenes of the grand social media production – taking on the “voice” of a 500-person organization – I’d like to know what exactly it is that people get out of their feeds.

So, I’m curious:

  • What gets your attention online?
  • How do you interact with social media? Do you use it as a discovery engine, an address book, news source?
  • What conversations/stories are relevant to you? (Particularly about your city?)

Please share your thoughts! I may be on a cleanse but ultimately, I believe that social media’s *nutritious* value is just waiting to be revealed. (sad food pun, sorry)

Food for thought:

Social Media Is For Listening.

Are You An IDIOT?

Publish Mode

It’s been over a month since I posted about my failed attempt to capture Buzzfeed’s attention. Now, I’m learning the mechanics behind attention as an intern at Business Insider. I still have a lot to learn but from what I’ve observed, there is no recipe for getting clicks on the web. Throw in a spicy headline, titillating photo, vivid writing, and …voila! You may have the makings of a potentially viral story. (In fact,  yesterday Business Insider experienced record-breaking traffic due to a single post ).

That said, I have yet to strike big on clicks. But for what it’s worth, here are some stories I’ve enjoyed working on thus far :

Career Advice from Warren Buffett: Warren Buffet had his first ever office hours, during which he answered questions from Levo League members (shout-out to Caroline Ghosn, co-founder of the Levo League, who did a fabulous job  moderating). My editor and I drafted a post with key takeaways 30 minutes after the live stream. Writing quickly and on deadline is something I’m still getting the hang of. Getting thrown into this on my 2nd day gave me a real taste of the rapid publishing pace…it hasn’t stopped since!

Tiger Babies and all things Asian: Since being assigned to write a book review of Tiger Babies– a comical response to Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom memoir- I have been unwittingly placed on 2 more Asian-related topics. Coincidence? While it probably wasn’t intentional, I’m still concerned that the outside perception of my reporting is that I am touting the superiority of Asians. Which is totally believable with headlines like ‘Asian Americans Are Smarter, Richer, And Harder-Working Than Everyone Else‘ under my byline. (I received a handful of tweets from people calling me racist after that one.) I think the Asian beat has stopped for now, but who knows…

Stanford Business School World-Changers: If you want to feel like an underachiever, check this out. We highlighted 17 of the most inspiring folks from Stanford’s Graduate Business School. Their accomplishments and plans for the future made my mind whirl. My personal favorite was Taiwanese entrepreneur, Chihyu “Wretch” Chien, who created the largest Taiwanese blogging platform, Wretch. It eventually sold to Yahoo for $700 million. He told me, “Wretch was actually my geeky handle in a forum, which then become my project and later my company name.  Eventually people started to call me Wretch in Taiwan and I thought that was cool.’ I thought that was cool too.

Why Grads Should Join Startups: Venture for America‘s Summer Celebration at the IAC honoring its 65 new fellows was even bigger and better than last year. It was awesome to see how much the organization had grown in a year. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert pledged $1.5 million. High-profile supporters Arianna Huffington and Jeff Weiner gave keynotes. Huffington told VFA founder Andrew Yang on stage: “You were one year old when I met you, and my god, how you’ve grown. You are now a phenomenal toddler. When you’re a teenager, truly watch out.”

Huffington also spoke to those of us in the media, saying that too often we chase the stories that elevate fear but don’t put enough spotlight on creativity and good things happening in the world. Word.

I also want to mention a serious journalist mistake I made last week. (Fortunately, by some act of God’s grace, it was able to turn into a stroke of good luck). In an article I wrote on backlash against Tiger Moms, I quoted WSJ columnist Jeff Yang. The quote had been provided to me by a researcher of a study. In the quote, he implies that he disagrees with the study results. A day later, Yang contacted me via Twitter requesting to speak about the piece. The initial excitement of having a veteran reporter reach out instantly faded when I realized that this wasn’t going to be a congratulatory message. Sure enough, Jeff was confused about the quote, particularly since I had never directly spoken with him.  I could immediately see how seeing your name being quoted in an article you were never interviewed for would be odd. We clarified the confusion but I learned my lesson: verify and never ever misattribute. I’m grateful to Jeff Yang (a veteran writer who I highly respect) for taking the time to point it out privately, rather than publicly make a fuss of it. We have plans to get coffee soon.

Takeaway: If you own up to your mistakes, more often than not, people will be willing to help than rail on you.

More stories to come, stay tuned…

ps. on a personal note, I taught my mentee how to ride a bike in Central Park this weekend. as awkward and miserable as we look (it was 90+ degrees), teaching someone how to bike really is as fulfilling as all the parents say. not to mention, getting to model awesome helmets.

Melanie_BikeRiding