The Influencers Published in Marathon Literary Review

tiny hands

Driven by a quest for fame, American life has become all about optics. The truth does not matter; instead, it’s about popularity and surface appearance. It’s all about likes.

The Influencers

My short story, The Influencers, recently published in Marathon Literary Review, examines the pursuit of online celebrity. In this dark comedy, a prolific Twitterer accepts a free trip to Mexico and stumbles into disaster.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written fiction about social media – my novel Murder on U Street was also concerned the dangerous lure of the online world.

I write about it because I am one of its victims. Like the protagonist in The Influencers, I’m obsessed with Twitter. This fire hose of electronic information, discourse, debate and applause is irresistible to me, though it has stolen my attention span and wrecked my sanity.

I recognize the dangers of social media but am unwilling to break free, trapped in this digital funhouse with real-world consequences, like the glib characters of The Influencers.

Tweetstorm: Five Lessons from Going Viral

Tweet activity

A viral photo became my most popular tweet ever, racking up more than 200,000 impressions.

It’s a picture that I captured outside the White House Correspondents Dinner, a quick shot of Parkland survivor David Hogg before I was shooed away by security. Happy to get any photo, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my photographer friends would enjoy it.

And then it blew up online, my phone steadily buzzing with notifications through the night and for days afterward.

What can you learn from going viral?

  1. It will be accidental. It’s nice to think that you can make a post go viral – you can’t. Twitter is driven by the users. Their likes, dislikes, passions, prejudices and whims determine what goes viral and what doesn’t. I’ve written funnier tweets, taken better photos and shared more interesting links but it was this post of David Hogg that went viral, for it was timely (the dinner was going on as I posted the photo) and Hogg is a controversial figure in the gun control debate.
  2. You’ll want to change your tweet. In my photo, another person is pictured. I didn’t recognize him so just identified David Hogg. Within minutes, a reply told me that it was Zion Kelly, whose brother was shot to death on the streets of DC. You can’t edit a tweet so I added a threaded post identifying him.
  3. You will be personally attacked. I didn’t reply to the gun nuts who thought that the presence of David Hogg at the WHCD was preposterous. But a couple people said that I was racist for omitting mention of Zion Kelly in my original tweet. When I explained to one that I didn’t recognize him, she grudgingly admitted that I might not be a racist but my response was “problematic.”
  4. You won’t understand the analytics. My original tweet had 221,000 impressions. The thread I added with Zion Kelly’s name had 680,000 impressions. Why does the thread have more than the original?
  5. It won’t amount to much. Seeing the photo go viral, I wrote a post the next day on the moment, which captured some of the traffic my photo generated. But out of 220,000 Twitter impressions, I gained five new followers. The raging discourse of America had landed briefly on me, lit me in its fire, and then moved on to the next topic in the endless, infernal debate.

Going viral is short-lived and unsatisfying. All that storm und drang around my photo ultimately amounted to little.

The next morning, I bundled up and biked to see my friends from the District Department of Transformation, a group of activists trying to make the city’s streets safer. They’re all people I’ve met through Twitter. They had blocked off a street for breakfast, an action designed to show that streets should be for people, not cars.

I took a photo and shared it using the #BikeDC hashtag.

That’s the type of engagement that matters – real, small-scale and committed.

If you’re a social media manager, don’t chase social media fame, which is ephemeral and low-value. Instead, use Twitter to build an impactful community of engaged supporters, people who will show up for you on a cold Sunday morning to occupy a street.

Let’s hate on brunch!

fried chicken and french toast
Hedonism or fried chicken on french toast?

A tremor went through the social media world of Washington, DC – someone was slamming brunch! With anticipation, I clicked and read What the DC Brunch Says About the Young Urban Elite.

The best line in the piece by Addison Del Mastro was at the beginning:

brunch in D.C. has evolved to be little more than a way for the young urban elite (today’s yuppies) to make their messy weekends look neat, drunkenness hip, and materialistic desires something other than hedonistic.

After that highlight, the text got vague, with standard indictments of DC as being too white, too rich and too fake. Then, weirdly, a call from the highly educated author for others to skip college.

Hoping for a polemic against a Washington institution deserving mockery, I put the iPhone down in disappointment. Do you even brunch, bro? The problem with authors seeking to eviscerate DC is that they know so little of the city beyond the monuments.

As a cynical Gen Xer, long-time resident and someone who wrote a novel where I gleefully murdered millennials, I felt the article missed so much of what’s so awful about brunch.

I have the misfortune of living off 14th Street. This once-gritty corridor, home to auto repair shops by day and hookers by night, has been refashioned as a temple of conspicuous consumption for the city’s elite. Everything notorious about the strip is now gone, replaced by juiceries and micro-apartments.

A little after 1 PM on a Sunday, I saw a 20-something stumbling down the street. I was concerned. Was he sick? While DC is safer than it used to be, it’s still the kind of city where the weak are considered prey.

As he passed me, I saw. Raging drunk, in the middle of the day. The cause: brunch. Head down, in the classic intoxicated stumble, he rambled toward points unknown.

I have never liked brunch. In the morning, I want coffee and I want it now. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain described brunch as basically the worst:

Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights.

Why wait in line for leftovers when all I want is coffee and a bagel?

I like things neat. I like things organized. Brunch is a mess, as sloppy and gross as a plate of runny eggs dumped on a table by a waitress who is slammed by a dozen tables of mimosa-swilling morons.

It’s not breakfast. It’s not lunch. It’s not coffee. It’s not drinking. And, yet, it’s all of those things.

There is no escape from brunch, even for someone who objects to the institution. Sometimes, you have visitors. They demand brunch and want you to find a place.

I chose Boundary Stone, because I knew it was a good neighborhood joint and blocks away from the “whoo girls” that throng 14th St.

Being GenX, we arrived promptly at 11 AM. First ones in the restaurant but the manager insisted on squeezing us all into a tiny booth, carefully packing us together like a puzzle of human parts. I was placed in such a contorted position that I left with a paralyzing backache. Within an hour, Boundary Stone was packed, with tables butting against the front door, all filled with young couples sipping Bloody Marys, some with actual babies (Addison Del Mastro thinks people in DC don’t have children).

It was fine. No, it was good. How can you not like french toast and fried chicken, even if it’s served at a time offensive to my Midwestern sensibilities? But the waiter kept pushing bottomless mimosas – “You just want one?” – confused by these strange people who didn’t want to get hammeringly drunk before noon.

We left, full and tipsy, the brunch scene a dull roar behind us. My guests were delighted, not just with Boundary Stone but also the squashed rat they saw near their car. “Flat rat!” they giggled, taking photos. Now that’s authentic DC.

Brunch is big business in this city. A friend of mine tried going to drag brunch. She was turned away. Reservations required. Imagine, having to plan ahead to get insulted by drag queens as you pick at a plate of cold eggs.

Brunch has ruined Logan Circle. On the weekends, there is virtually no escape from it. Gaggles of girls get into strange cars, mistaking them for Uber. Bros smoke as they loiter outside restaurants. Impatient couples tell hostesses how long they’ve been waiting and that they were here long before that other group!

The swarm is not limited to the streets, but ascends to the skies, to the rooftop pool of my apartment building. Once home to quiet grad students, the building has now attracted swingles who pack the pool during the summer. Vodka is consumed, Katy Perry plays and everyone gets to hear stories of terrible life decisions.

Maybe if I was a morning person, I’d like brunch better. But I really don’t want talk to you before coffee. I don’t want to be social.

But brunch is all about the social, less about the food, and more about the Instagram. It doesn’t matter that you waited an hour for pancakes. What matters is how they look. And how you look, as you craft a social media persona to make your friends back home jealous. Fabulous! So totally Sex and the City! Even if life in DC little resembles the glitzy 90s series as we devolve into a country that looks a lot like Idiocracy.

I grew up a free-range child, with formless days where I disappeared with a gang of kids to ride bikes around town (no helmets!) and play on the railroad tracks. There were no Helicopter Parents back then. We solved our own problems.

As a Gen Xer, I think you should keep your shit together.

Daylight should not see you fall out of a rolling Uber. You should not discuss boy problems with a voice loud enough for the whole pool to hear. Nor should you meet a stranger who “found” your phone – that’s a really bad idea.

Brunch is sloppy, careless and usually paid for with someone else’s money – much like millennials. It is their meal, where they take leftovers and turn them into a social media representation of joy.

I don’t blame them.

Shit is fucked up. With Trump in the White House, all of this may end in a mushroom cloud.

Let the millennials have their mimosas. Indulge the french toast. Clink champagne glasses.

Brunch, for tomorrow we die.


Bikes are Happiness Machines: Profiled in Greater Greater Washington

I was recently profiled in Greater Greater Washington for my photography and social media work documenting bike culture in this area. There’s nothing I like more than wandering the city by bike (and drinking coffee), which comes across in the nicely-written article.

Usually, I’m the one doing the interviewing so it was different to be on the receiving end of the questions. Rachel and the folks at GGW did a great job cleaning up my answers and turning them into coherent responses. My interview is part of a series called Behind the Handlebars, which will be profiling the people of #BikeDC.

“Bikes are happiness machines.” When I said that, I was thinking of this article in Momentum on the mental health benefits of cycling. I’ve been out on a bike in all kinds of weather, from the polar vortex to punishing heat, and I’ve never had a bad moment.

Letter from Washington: Public Servants, Not Trump Servants

President Trump is “locking down” government communication by public servants, including social media, at federal agencies. A crackdown is occurring at the Department of Transportation, HHS and other agencies. Press releases, tweeting and even public speaking is banned – temporarily, they claim. Trump loyalists are being embedded to monitor the work and communications of public servants.

Public servants are called that for a reason – they work for the public. It’s a service, paid for with your tax dollars. Federal employees do not work for a single faction. They serve all of us, no matter which political party we support.

They are public servants, not Trump servants. Their work belongs to us. They have an obligation to communicate to the citizens who pay their salary.

I worked as a contractor in the communications department of a large federal agency. Among my duties was updating the social media account. As long as I avoided certain hot-button issues (like climate change), I was allowed to write and post to Facebook and Twitter without review.

Was this because senior management was interested in more important matters? Or didn’t think social media was important? A little of both. Press releases went through rounds of reviews because they could be printed out, marked up and distributed. The ephemeral world of social media didn’t lend itself to such micromanagement so was left alone.

It’s also impossible to monitor, as the rogue Badlands NPS account revealed. While there are tools to manage social media, my agency didn’t have them. We didn’t know how many social media accounts we had, who ran them or what they were doing with them. Different components of the agency had set them up, without informing HQ. Passwords to social media accounts were widely shared and given to interns and even contractors, like myself.

I felt we should communicate more, not less. There were some fascinating stories inside the agency where I worked. Technicians developing tools to alert the public to severe weather. Scientists uncovering the secrets of the lightless deep ocean. Researchers helping farmers plan for drought.

There should be more government communication, not less. Every government employee should be allowed to communicate with the public on the subject of their work. Conservatives should demand this – don’t you want to know what your money is being used for?

Information wants to be free, wanting to escape its bounds and find its way to readers. Just look at the 2016 campaign, during which embarassing DNC documents were leaked by the Russians.

The Trump action will ultimately fail, the tools they used against opponents now turned upon them. Once the feds discover how easy it is to go rogue, an alternate universe of federal information will be established in cyberspace, outside the control of Trumpian minders, a Wikileaks of climate reports, scientific research and gossipy accounts of government life, ultimately achieving the aim of making government information accessible to the people.

For what better way to get people to read something then to tell them that it’s banned? 😉


Employees Are the Brand

Lincoln Memorial amid trees

Your employees are your brand, according to an all-star panel of communicators at the recent workshop, “Building an Agency’s Brand and Defining the Audience.”

The Federal Communicators Network (FCN) and the Partnership for Public Service sponsored this conversation on how to build a strong brand and better define your audience. This lively discussion featured real-world stories from professional communicators who have honed their organization’s brand and established a clear customer base.

Panelists included Danielle Blumenthal (NIST), Bill Walsh (AARP), Suki Baz (National Park Service) and moderator Dave Herbert (NGS).

Suki Baz began by describing the rebranding efforts going on at the National Park Service. They have a logo that’s iconic and instantly recognizable. However, the design of the NPS arrowhead is limiting, as it was designed before the needs of web pages and social media. As their 100th anniversary approaches, they’re reintroducing their logo with a fresh new feel that’s designed to appeal to millennials.

However, NPS recognizes that to appeal to younger audiences they need to do more than just change their logo. NPS is adding to their social media teams and encouraging their parks to actively engage with younger audiences, particularly online.

(An aside: of course I asked NPS about how they never respond to my tweets! Unsurprisingly, NPS is a large bureaucracy like any other one. Suki has little control over what local park districts do. So, how do you get in touch with a park if you have an issue? She suggested calling.)

Another organization that has approached rebranding is AARP. For most people, it’s an organization synonymous with senior citizens. The arrival of a letter inviting you to join AARP is like an official acknowledgment of old age. Bill Walsh of AARP hopes to change all that. AARP no longer stands for the American Association of Retired Persons. Instead, it’s just AARP these days. They’ve modernized their web, print and social media materials to reach out to Baby Boomers – you only need to be 50 to join. These efforts fall under a single banner: Real Possibilities. AARP no longer wants to be known just for travel discounts – they want to be seen as an organization that will help you reach your potential through career and life advice.

Employees are a key element in this transition. AARP has offices nationwide and a cadre of volunteers. Field offices have been provided with briefing materials and messaging guides so that the organization can speak in a single, consistent voice.

Danielle Blumenthal underscored this point with examples from her career in federal government. Her experience is been that most people don’t read the employee newsletter. The way to reach busy employees is through short, concise, valuable content. Instead of doing a newsletter, she suggests sending out a daily email with the three things that you need to know for the day. You need to focus on value (the things employees care about) and be real (speak as a person, not an organization). After all, the first people you need to sell your brand to are your own employees.

Employees are brand ambassadors. The public builds impressions of brands based upon the experience they have with them. New logos and redesign efforts are only part of the solution to modernizing a brand. Employees are the key element in any transition for they embody the brand.

For More Information

NPS: Why Won’t You Answer Me?

Bike trail bridge near National Airport
A very icy and dangerous section of the Mount Vernon Trail near National Airport. Photo by Michael Neubert.

I recently attended Social Media: What’s the Right Strategy for Your Agency?, a forum put on by the Federal Communicators Network. The event was a roundtable discussion of best practices from social media experts at the CIA (really), VA and USGS, among others.

It was a very interesting discussion but one point stood out for me as a government communicator: good federal agencies know that social media is customer service. They realize that Twitter and Facebook are more than just broadcast vehicles; they exist to help the public get answers. Social media is a chance to change the perception of Big Government by providing information to the public in a timely manner.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Smart federal agencies like the VA and USGS have teams in place to respond to public inquiries. They’re setup as customer service centers and pride themselves on letting no question go unanswered.

And then we have the National Parks Service, who never ever ever respond to anyone who asks them a question on Twitter. They’re too busy tweeting about TV shows and Junior Rangers to reply to us taxpayers.

For example, the bike trail (you knew this would come back to bikes, didn’t you?) along the GW Parkway is one of the most heavily traveled bike commuter routes in the region. It’s essential for people coming from Alexandria to get into the city.

Does NPS plow the bike trail like Arlington County does? No, they let the trails turn into ice-covered ruts that endanger walkers, runners and cyclists.

What’s worse is that they never ever respond to anyone (and there’s been a lot of people) who ask them about it on social media. Do you think the phones at NPS go unanswered? No, of course not. They have people to answer the phones. But when it comes to social media they let it ring and ring, the public be damned.

Not responding to the public is one of the cardinal sins of this age. Agencies with budgets much smaller than NPS will reply to your tweets, like the DC Department of Transportation. We in #BikeDC forgive their lapses in snow removal because we know that they’re trying.

How do we know this? Because there’s a real person who answers their Twitter! You can get angry at a big agency but when there’s obviously a human being on the other end of the computer – you feel empathy for them.

Even WMATA, who literally lets customers die in a fire, will reply to folks on Twitter. Sometimes they’re even helpful.

The National Parks Service has a budget of $2.6 billion. They have a staff of 21,798. You can’t find a couple folks to answer tweets?

If the National Parks Service cannot maintain their social media accounts, they should shut them down. Their poor customer service is embarrassing the rest of Big Government – and that’s saying something.

The 21st Century is a Really Bad Time for Control Freaks

The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks.
– Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor for Innovation to the U.S. Secretary of State

The State Department trusts its employees to tweet – why doesn’t yours?

The above quote was mentioned by Graham Lampa, State Department Office of Public Diplomacy, at the SocialGov Summit, a workshop on how government agencies are using social media to help build a more connected, responsive, and performance-driven government. The event featured digital experts from the State Department, USAID, Peace Corps, Red Cross and the Philippines government who discussed using social media to connect with audiences at home and abroad.

Lampa brought up the quote from his former boss when someone asked, “How are tweets cleared in your agency?” The answer is that State trusts its staff. In a rapidly changing world, there is not time to send social media through some cumbersome review process, particularly when you have staff scattered across the globe. State trusts its Ambassadors and consular staff to speak for the agency – and the country.

A friend of mine used to work for a Very Important Nonprofit (that no one has heard of outside of Washington). It believed that the world waited for their announcements as if they were Kremlin communiques. Even a simple tweet required multiple levels of sign-offs and approvals, with anxious emails parsing every single word over the course of days, sometime weeks. When the tweets finally reached the outside world, they read as if they were written by pedantic lawyers. They were ignored.

This is how you kill off social media. Who would want to tweet for an org like that?

But your employees will talk about you. They’re tweeting, posting on Facebook, pinning on Pinterest, holding Google Hangouts and taking pictures on Flickr. The conversation is taking place and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Communication can’t be controlled, even if you review every tweet employees produce during working hours.

“The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks,” as Alec Ross says. The State Department has 270 locations in 172 countries. It’s budget is in the tens of billions of dollars. They have guns, badges and the power of the federal government but even they can’t control what people are saying about them online. State wisely recognizes that they can’t control the conversation – instead they must contribute to it, using their best resource: their people.

Your employees want to help. They’re already talking about you on Facebook. Rather than tangling them in some social media policy, trust them to communicate your message online. After all, you hired them, didn’t you?

Get employes on your side. Get them tweeting for you. They are your best resource for they represent the authentic voice of your organization. Make them ambassadors for your brand – and get out of the way.

Don't Mess Up My Block – Free for CyberMonday

Don't Mess Up My Block book coverGet my biz book satire Don’t Mess Up My Block for free this CyberMonday! My funny novel follows Laurent Christ, self-annointed business guru, as he travels the country dispensing bad advice to clients large and small. The book skewers social media consultants, big government, corporate-speak and other evils of contemporary America.

Interview with Suzie Robb of Boobs Bacon Bourbon

Suzie Robb
Suzie Robb

For the “Man Up!” issue of On Tap Magazine, I had a chance to interview Suzie Robb of Boobs Bacon Bourbon, a web site that covers these important male interests. Given her web site, I thought she’d be perfect for the dude-themed August edition of On Tap.

If you live in DC and are on Twitter, sooner or later you will meet Suzie. She’s like a female Kevin Bacon, connected to everyone. I met her at a show of iPhone photography at Fathom gallery. She knew all the photogs I knew and everyone else in DC, it seemed.

Given her ubiquity in the local Twitterverse, it’s not surprising that she was given the opportunity to talk to the Social Media Club of DC about her approach to blogging and new media. Her advice is practical – be real. Write about things you’re passionate about, even if it’s your morning commute.

But what I like about Suzie – she just went for it. Most people, after waking up sober the next morning, would dismiss the idea of web site devoted to boobs, bacon and bourbon. Not Suzie and her friends. She registered the domain name and got to work, enlisting people to write content, installing WordPress and scheduling the launch party.

Web sites sometimes get planned to death, with Gantt charts and Microsoft Project replacing what is, essentially, an artistic venture. It doesn’t have to be this way, as Boobs Bacon Bourbon cheekily demonstrates.

Suzie Robb: One of the Guys
By Joe Flood
On Tap Magazine | August 2012 Issue

You know that girl with the food issues and the unfathomable neuroses? Suzie Robb is the opposite of all that. As the founder of the Boobs Bacon Bourbon web site, she’s a guy’s girl who enjoys nothing more than pitchers of beer and rowdy friends.

On Tap: Were you born this way?
Suzzie Robb:
I’ve been a “guy’s girl” my entire life. I have two brothers that I’m very close with and always had male friends growing up. I don’t dislike women, I just relate more to the drama-free lifestyle of guys. Plus, they never borrow my clothes.

OT: Any advice for the women of DC?
Tone down the crazy, learn to love bourbon and stop sending me hate-mail.

OT: What’s next for Suzie and Boobs Bacon Bourbon?
The web site has taken on a personality of its own and become something I never predicted it could be. I’d love to host more events and find ways for readers to be able to interact with each other. What’s next for me? Beyond a glass of bourbon on the rocks, I have no idea.