An interview with Justin Kownacki

When I started out with this blog I did a great deal of research, I was looking for what people were already doing in the social media space and wanted to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. One of the first blogs posts to really catch my attention was I’m STILL Doing It Wrong: 5 MORE Mistakes I’ve Made in Social Media from Justin Kownacki. It pretty much came to define what I’m trying to do on this blog, namely to be open-minded and forthright about what social media is, what it can do, and the fallibility of it’s users.

From there I discovered his ground-breaking online sitcom Something to Be Desired which, at 6 seasons has demonstrated incredible staying power. This interested the screenwriter in me, another reason why Justin is probably my favourite blogger right now.

Anyway, enough of the gushing praise. The great news is that he agreed to answer a few questions for me. Which I’m sharing with you now. Enjoy:

You made your name with Something To Be Desired before getting involved with Podcamp. Can you explain the leap?

In 2003, we launched Something to Be Desired (STBD) as an experiment. I wanted to learn how to create video for the web, and I wondered who would watch it, how easily they might find it, etc.  (This was pre-YouTube, pre-video-enabled iPods, etc.)  In order to make people aware that the show existed, I dabbled in various promotional tools —
print interviews, cold-contacting bloggers, and even signing up for this (then-)newfangled network called MySpace.

But in the mid-2000s, the idea of a serialized web show was pretty foreign to most people.  They’d ask, “So, what you really want to do is get your show on public access TV, right?”  (Which, here in America, is the equivalent of aspiring to be a hobo.)  So when the first PodCamp happened in 2006, I jumped at the chance to spend a weekend with other podcasters because it was the first time none of us would have to explain what we were doing, or why — we could just focus on *how* and “what next?”

Since then, PodCamp has expanded from discussing “podcasting” to “social media in general.”  We hosted the 2nd-ever PodCamp in Pittsburgh in November 2006, and I helped organize and lead the event for the next 3 years.  And while I’ve been impressed with the ever-growing size of these events, I’m also aware that they’ve lost their original focus.  They’re less about creating media that matters and more about creating messaging that sells.  So I’ve retracted from actively organizing future social media events, and I’m now returning to the content creation side of the equation.  I’d rather be known as “the guy who makes interesting media” than “the guy who can help you sell your widgets.”

You were recently namechecked by Chris Brogan. What’s your opinion on the power of social media celebrities?
Full disclosure: I’ve known Chris Brogan since early 2006, when he was just a guy with a day job who blogged about technology in his spare time.  He wrote a post about web video, and how he thought it was a cool idea that his town’s local theatre group might be interested in. I found his post (via Technorati) and contacted him to say, “Hey, if you think web video is cool, you should see this web sitcom I’ve been producing for 3 years.”  He watched STBD, he liked it, and we hit it off.  We’ve kept in touch ever since.

And then Chris joined his fellow Boston media-makers to launch the first PodCamp that autumn, and the rest is history.

So I have the unusual pleasure of knowing Chris Brogan since before he was “Chris Brogan,” which is why I’m always amused when people take his word as gospel.  To me, Chris is a friend with good ideas that revolve around common sense.  To the rest of the social media world, Chris is a figurehead.  Thus, when Chris says, “Hey, you should read Justin Kownacki’s blog,” my site gets flooded with hundreds of new visitors who think that following Chris’s lead will somehow make them equally rich and famous.  Their visits rarely add demonstrable value to my day, because what they’re interested in is rarely what I’m interested in.  But their traffic boosts are pleasant distractions from the rest of my day.

Speaking broadly, I don’t know many social media celebrities who can move mountains in any meaningful way — and yes, I know my fair share of social media celebrities.  Our localized world is still too small for anyone to say or do anything that has a massive ripple effect in the real world.  The best anyone can do is redirect the fishbowl, but very few people have bridged their way into the mainstream.  (Felicia Day may be the only name that immediately comes to mind, and even she’s still a celebrity primarily within the geek mainstream.)

Influence is great, but it’s what you do with it that counts.  And, in general, I’m not seeing very much influence being applied to work that matters.  (And yes, I include myself in that summary.  But the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem.)

Is 140 characters enough?

What is the most important thing that you tell your clients?
Be human.

Customers are people.  Companies are created and run by people.  Yet somewhere along the way, we all tend to forget that we’re people, and we start treating both sides of the divide like numbers.

Social media changes the way people interact because it means you no longer have an excuse for NOT knowing how someone feels.  If you’ve oblivious to your customers’ true feelings, it’s because you’re willfully not paying attention.  And if your customers see your brand as a faceless corporation, it’s because you don’t trust your employees enough to allow them to be themselves in public — which includes the web.

I’d rather do business with a person than a brand, and I suspect most humans feel the same way.  So why not allow your company to be recognized as a group of people working toward a goal, rather than a logo that everyone hides behind?

Social media is all about finding influencers. Who are yours?
As my previous answer may indicate, I don’t put much stock in influencers.  Though, obviously, I’d rather have them on my side, because you never know when a 500-pound gorilla might come in handy.

These days, I find myself mostly influenced by people who push inventive, inspiring or challenging ideas.  Obviously, what inspires or challenges me is not necessarily what inspires or challenges anyone else, which is why some of the “gurus” out there may be legitimately motivational for people who haven’t already heard it all before.

Among the people who usually catch my attention are:

Maria Popova — — because she finds and shares some of the best-curated art & media experiments on the planet.

Clay Shirky — — author of “Here Comes Everybody” — I’ve read the knocks about Shirky being the kind of unfocused pundit who, like Malcolm Gladwell, throws a dozen loosely-connected ideas into a conversation and leaves you with the impression that he’s said something profound.  Unlike Gladwell, Shirky still manages to keep my attention.

Jay Rosen — — He seems to be the lone journalistic voice who’s perversely amused and alarmed by his industry’s deliberate choice to commit suicide rather than seek help. Watching him document the collapse of traditional journalism is morbidly fascinating.

Humanity Critic — — Sure, he’s an unabashed liberal, which may color one’s perceptions.  But he summarizes the lunacy of modern politics (and hip-hop) in a starkly compelling, 140 character way.

Where next?
For me?  I’m transitioning out of the social marketing biz and back into the world of content creation.  When I wake up excited every morning because I don’t know what unthinkably cool project or mindblowing collaboration will come my way that day, I’ll know I’m living the life I’ve been meandering my way toward this whole time.

For the social media industry?  As business models expand and contract, I’m sure it will continue its inevitable convergence with the mainstream.  By then, I’d like to think the fishbowl will have produced a few ideas, creations and professionals worth following into the future.  But the cynic in me suspects that the vast majority of the fishbowl will simply jump at the first whiff of an underpriced job offer and swim off into the dark night of obscurity.

For the sake of optimism, I’ll leave room for the fishbowl to pleasantly surprise me.

Thanks very much to Justin for taking the time out for this interview.


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