Ideas don’t spread like viruses: my grad-school master’s thesis

I just finished my master’s thesis!

I interviewed ten entrepreneurs, academics, and designers and asked them how ideas spread in their industry. I was trying to poke holes in the “ideas spread like viruses” paradigm, which is the primary way people think of ideas spreading these days.

I created an interactive website featuring long-form versions of three of the interviews. Check it out here.

And it’s been getting good press! Philadelphia-based entrepreneur, Christopher Wink (whom I interviewed) had this to say about it in his semi-weekly email newsletter:

Ideas don’t go viral. Or rather, that metaphor isn’t as effective as an “ecosystem,” in which a network needs to be in place and a complex chain of events needs to be followed. That’s from this master’s thesis from a guy named Marc Hummel who reached out and interviewed me last year. He’s now published that thesis online in a remarkably fun and visual way. Go look at it here, if only to see what a thesis can look like.

Check out the site here and let me know what you think!

Thanks.

How snow can total your car when it’s parked on the street

Prius totaled by snow

My car was recently totaled by falling snow during last week’s snowstorm. (It happened in the middle of March, in Philadelphia for the record. Not a time of year known for its blizzards.)

Let’s start at the end.

The little tissue box that could

I was a copywriter at QVC from 2011-2014. I learned way more about Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray, pressure cookers, and cordless vacuums than I thought was humanly possible. I also stocked up on office supplies.

QVC had a pretty generous office-supply policy. Need some pens? Just find what you want in the communal Office Depot catalog, email the item number to the department admin, and receive your order 1–2 weeks later.*

I sat pretty close to the admin who processed the orders, which gave me a front-row view of the orders of my co-workers.

And what I saw opened my eyes

People ordered a lot of stuff. Novelty tape dispensers. Stainless steel staplers. And boxes of tissues. Tissues! I always need tissues! But it never crossed my mind to order them from work… I can provide those just fine thank you very much.

So when it came time to place next month’s order, I ordered a box of tissues. And since I’m a good eco-conscious consumer (and because I wasn’t the one paying), I ordered Seventh Generation tissues. Nothing but the most environmentally friendly tissues for my nose, thank you very much.

Except there was one teeny tiny problem: I ordered a whole case of tissues. 24 boxes of tissues showed up at my desk in a giant box. WHAT AN EMBARRASSMENT. That guy must be abusing the system, my colleagues surely muttered to themselves.

To save face, I immediately distributed boxes of tissues to my preferred co-workers and stashed a bunch under my desk. And I took a box to my car, of course.

Now back to the car

Prius getting towed away

As mentioned above, my car was recently totaled in a snowstorm.

It was a 2011 Toyota Prius in great condition. An avalanche of snow came down from the roof of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital at Seventh and Spruce streets and landed right on my car. Multiple snow bricks rained down on my car during the middle of the night, denting the roof, smashing the windshield, and crushing the whole side of the car.**

So yesterday I removed everything from my car before it was towed to the salvage yard. For those keeping track at home: I still have some tissues left.

Seventh Generation tissues

Important notes:

*I never abused this policy nor did I ever order more than was required as a copywriter.

**Penn’s property insurance is covering the damage no hard feelings ok?

The revolutionary script of Silicon Valley

I took a communication class about social revolutions last semester. One of the books from which we read was Scripting Revolution. It was about how many social revolutions come to adopt the same way of using language, dress, and tactics, as a way of building support for their movements via sheer familiarity.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt:

This volume argues that the American and French Revolutions provided the genesis of the revolutionary “script” that was rewritten by Marx, which was revised by Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution, which was revised again by Mao and the Chinese Communist Revolution. Later revolutions in Cuba and Iran improvised further. This script is once again on display in the capitals of the Middle East and North Africa, and it will serve as the model for future revolutionary movements.

For my final paper in the class, I took that argument and applied it to Silicon Valley, drawing majorly from Fred Turner’s excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In the paper, I show how tech startups draw from the counterculture with features such as flexible work hours and casual dress codes, to legitimize business practices that would seem totally opposed to counterculture ethos, and to appeal to young people who fancy themselves as revolutionary rebels.

Read a version of my paper on Medium:
The revolutionary script of Silicon Valley.

The Power of Admitting You Don’t Know

Great exploration by Tim Kreider of our media culture and the reluctance of many of its participants to shut up and admit they don’t know what they’re talking about.

I think about this a lot, how most of us don’t acknowledge the limits of our knowledge when we write and talk. Tim’s article begins with possible origins of the impulse (think grade school thesis statements) and concludes with current examples and the implications of not letting on when we don’t know.

An excerpt:

This is another reason so many writers feel the need to impersonate someone wise or in possession of some marketable truth: it’s a function of insecurity, of fear. If we don’t assume some sort of expertise, why, exactly, should anyone bother reading us, let alone buy our books or invite us to appear on “Fresh Air”? The one thing no editorialist or commentator in any media is ever supposed to say is I don’t know: that they’re too ignorant about the science of climate change to have an informed opinion; that they frankly have no idea what to do about gun violence in this country; or that they’ve just never quite understood the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in all honesty they’re sick of hearing about it. To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.

From “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know'” {new york times}.

Google Reader v. Twitter

Flipboard Screen Grab

Google Reader is dead. Long live twitter.

That’s one of the refrains being tossed around in the wake of Reader’s recent death sentence. From a rather sentimental coming-of-age article by Joshua Rothman {new yorker; via andrew sullivan}:

Twitter, which has replaced Reader (and R.S.S.) for many people, works on a different principle [than Twitter]. It’s not organized or completist. There are no illusions with Twitter. You can’t pretend, by “marking it read,” that you’ve read it all; you don’t think you’re going to cram “the world of ideas” into your Twitter stream. At the same time, you’re going to be surprised, provoked, informed. It’s a better model.

But Reader had a lot going for it, too. Using Twitter feels, to me, like joining a club; Reader felt like filling up a bookcase. It was a place for organizing your knowledge, and also for stating, and reviewing, your intentions and commitments. It kept a record of the things you meant to read but never did; of the writers you loved but don’t anymore. I won’t miss Reader when it shuts down, on July 1st. But I will miss the old me—the person I described in Google Reader, without knowing it.

Color me a “completist,” but the ability to mark it all read is what I love about RSS and Google Reader. The high likelihood that I’m missing something cool on twitter drives me nuts.

My personal media consumption preferences are somewhat of a balance. I use Google Reader through the Feeddler iPhone app for the stuff I really don’t want to miss. (Nick Carr, Daring Fireball, Seth Godin…)

For everything else, I use another app: Flipboard (shown above). The things I follow on Flipboard are more non-essential, I’ll-feel-OK-if-I-miss-them sorts of things. (Nothing personal guys but stuff like Coudal, Technically Philly, American Scholar, Glenn Greenwald…)

Which I suppose isn’t a setup all that different from what Mr. Rothman achieves with his just-twitter diet (if that is indeed the diet to which he adheres). Half of me just can’t let go of that self-delusional feeling that I’ve read it all.