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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is Guy Kawasaki Singlehandedly Ruining Twitter? (Part 2)

I said a lot of overly theatrical things about Guy Kawasaki in my last rant about him: Is Guy Kawasaki Singlehandedly Ruining Twitter? (Part I). Included in these were suggesting that Kawasaki was a "politician" who should never run for office any higher than "small town mayor"; that his tactics could turn Twitter into a "digital trailer park"; that he was like the regional manager of a vacuum cleaner direct sales organization; and that he would soon grow a mustache and begin smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

And for these indiscretions, I would apologize if asked. But not for stirring up the serious underlying debate about the unfortunate potential for Twitter's brand to degrade every time some spammy tactician auto-follows me, or you.

Is there a more charitable interpretation of Guy Kawasaki's Twitter antics than the one I put forward? Yes, there is a more charitable interpretation. If you choose to interpret it this way, I'd understand. It's how I choose to approach certain other seemingly annoying personalities myself. Here's an overview of how the argument might go.

Kawasaki's heartfelt personal insights (recent, and longstanding) combined with the range of favorable accounts of his accomplishments and personal qualities inevitably humanize a figure that in Part I, I'd only sought to demonize.

[Please keep in mind that I didn't set out with the intention of demonizing any individual. My complaint with him was actually pretty specific: his material in the SES keynote, and the approach to marketing it encouraged. It's one thing to be a well known underachieving spammer, telling people how to spam. Audiences know how to read that. But to see someone considered an eclectic, cultured, community-savvy leader and to turn around and violate both the spirit and letter of marketing ethics -- and to encourage others to do the same -- was bizarre to me. I've been to dozens of SES conference keynotes. Many have been provocative. A couple have violated basic keynote etiquette by being, umm, boring. But none (though Jason Calacanis came close) have been so hypocritical, self-serving, and silly as Kawasaki's Twitter advice. It was a keynote only because of his prominent name. The talk would have been more or less fine had it been a rank-and-file panel at Pubcon, for the gotta-learn-all-the-tactics crowd.]

The Case for Kawasaki as Ethical Showman

So thinking about the real human being that lurks behind the current public persona, I was reminded of a couple of people who have made millions being showmen and who are well known for being intelligent, cultured, thoughtful, and caring -- behind the scenes. (And I'm not even counting Howard Stern, probably the most polarizing example of someone like that you can think of.)

To go with one example, I've always been a fan of the financial analyst Jim Cramer, and remain so to this day. The Cramer many people know today was the sheepish fellow who was recently called on the carpet by Jon Stewart, made to atone for his pro-Wall-Street cheerleading, picking bad stocks on his show Mad Money, and all manner of other damage he'd done under the cover of showmanship, propped up by an endless bull market.

The general crowd reaction to this Cramer, I felt, was unfair. They didn't "get" Cramer. The real Cramer who was always the slightly disadvantaged Harvard boy who never quite fit in on Wall Street. The one who left Wall Street. The one who started up TheStreet.com (how many people can point to an accomplishment like that, for heaven's sake), which despite many ups and downs remains as one of a tiny percentage of "dot com" IPO's that has remained independent and solvent to this day.

When Stewart "outed" Cramer for telling people about shady tactics that Wall Street commonly used to create false futures activity overseas in order to fool the opening markets just long enough to help a trader liquidate a large position, the assumption was that Cramer advocated shady tactics. But that's an overly literal, "flat" way of listening to a smart man who is nuanced in how he communicates. I interpret Cramer differently, because I feel like I get him. I think in many cases, he's been out there trying to warn people: this is what Wall Street is really like! Don't be scammed. Buyer beware.

How does it benefit Cramer to be so transparent about Wall Street's (and his) shady tactics? It doesn't. It's a public service.

(So there, I do see an interesting parallel between Cramer and Kawasaki. Kawasaki jokes: "I may be a spammer, but I'm a transparent one." In the SEO world, there have been a few folks like that. Name your favorite transparent spammer SEO.)

The attention people suddenly paid to Cramer as a villain was nothing less than silly. Ultimately, The Daily Show taking a one-day interest in Jim Cramer's antics on Mad Money was something agreed to by both Cramer and Stewart for one reason alone: further showmanship leading to ratings. I imagine Jon Stewart is aware that there are worse villains to pay attention to than Jim Cramer. After Bush and co. left the scene, it got harder to fill air time with progressive rantings against the powers that be. And Stewart is paid millions of dollars a year to fill air time.

After the dust settles, I'm convinced that Jim Cramer will continue to be two things: (1) a decent man with a lot of talent who has more courage and scruples in his little finger than most folks on Wall Street; and (2) a brilliant opportunist and showman who (much like a Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart, or Howard Stern) has risen to a position where he can make serious coin and in some way "get back at" the people and system that didn't afford him the same opportunities as his wealthier peers. And he has every right to be both.

Kawasaki, like Jim Cramer, is a bundle of contradictions; a hero to some, a villain to others. On the positive side, Kawasaki's antics serve as a canary in a coal mine to help Twitter regulate itself before it's eaten alive by abusers. Already, Twitter is tightening up its rules, formal TOS, and API policies, angering some third party developers but pointing towards an ideal of "normal" Twitter usage as opposed to "spammy" usage. In that regard, Kawasaki's massive Twitter presence can be seen as doing the growing company a great service... almost like ethical hacking.

Opt Out??

Like any would-be plague on society, as many commenters on this debate to date have implied, the pivotal question is: can you opt-out? If a few stupid people choose to subject themselves to bad ideas, interruptions, etc. - it shouldn't affect me, right?

On that count, we still have a debate on our hands. That's how I've always felt about Jim Cramer's "work"; just as how I've always felt about people buying ineffective contraptions and cheap jewelry on The Shopping Channel. If it's not for you, don't do it, right? Unfollow, unsubscribe, opt out. Change the frickin’ channel.

But: what if, after unsubscribing, unfollowing, and opting out, the problem is still getting worse?

One smart reader of the last column referred to the problem as “digital blight.” Take digital blight, and accelerate it through social media contagion, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The upshot is: I do still think Kawasaki is a spammer. And thousands of people are deliberately following his tactics. Many others are accidentally following them, or advocating them, because they haven't taken time out to think it through (or they didn't see the puerile SES keynote).

A friend of mine, someone with a lot of respect in the business world, followed me back recently when I followed him. His automated message pointed to a series of Twitter tips posted by Kawasaki last November. Without even trying, within seconds, I was able to discredit three of the five tips as spammy and/or contradicted by what Kawasaki actually does. 60% of the advice is easily refuted, and yet this is a "great article" that my friend sends to every single person who follows him (thousands to date)? "Great"? How about something by Malcolm Gladwell, maybe? Why was an otherwise smart person bamboozled into shilling for the King of Shill? Peer pressure, maybe? Or perhaps respect for Kawasaki's past accomplishments. Or the jokes about penis size and shiitake mushrooms were oddly disarming.

Maybe there's more to say about the problem of digital blight. Time allowing, I'll complete that thought in a Part 3. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

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