November 03, 2011
What is REAL Influence? Will Klout & Other Tools Define & Control You or Will You Define Them?
There's been so much buzz -- on and offline -- about Klout's decision to unveil a new formula which supposedly recalculates scores more accurately, the result of which brought most people's "popularity" scores down a few notches, including my own.
While I think what the guys over at Klout are trying to do is admirable and truth be told, we need really smart analytics and measurement tools to break through the noise, what we have today simply isn't accurate enough or "whole" enough to give us the real truth on who's influential and more importantly, in what circles and why.
Wouldn't it be more interesting to know who had a Klout score of 80 in food and wine, 80 in social media, 80 in fashion, 80 in politics and so on?
Wouldn't it also be more interesting if tools like this took into consideration a person's offline influence as well as other things they may have done, such as a bestselling book or created a program that made an African village sustain itself?
Part of the issue is that we're early and all of the vendors trying to innovate in this area are trying to figure it out. I spent time talking to Klout's CEO and founder Joe Fernandez in Dublin recently at a web conference and I think he's a great guy who's trying to do the right thing.
I jokingly complained that I've seen 21 year olds who are new to social media, new to Twitter and new to business whose Klout scores have been higher than mine on some days. There are many things they take into account when dishing out a Klout score, including the level of engagement. Crikey, if you're my niece's age and have thousands of Facebook friends who have a ton of time on their hands and can chat away all day with their friends, regardless of how big the circle is, then no doubt, that online "activity" gets engagement brownie points which goes into the Klout analysis.
While engagement could be high in this 'circle', it is its own ecosystem and the real question is: will this voice influence a certain number of people to buy a certain product or take a certain that builds brand awareness?
I have 3 Facebook pages attached to my name, all of which are mine, but I don't get credit in the Kloutsphere for any of them because they can only give you points for one Facebook account - your personal one. When I asked Joe about this, he had a logical explanation. There are far too many people managing a celebrity or brand's Facebook fan page and they shouldn't get credit for that level of influence when the page is about someone else. Fair enough. But what about those whose Facebook pages are legitimately connected to themselves? Small business owners would also fall into that category.
Yet, despite the fact that the numbers aren't accurate or "whole," tons of vendors and brands are jumping into the lions den and testing things out. Frankly, there's nothing wrong with that. With every evolution and revolution, you need to learn by trial and error just like we did with email after fax, blogging after websites and Twitter after AOL IM.
One of my issues is how much credence we (as an industry) give these early tools and how much of a time waste they are for so many I know including me at times before I kick myself back into perspective, nevermind the cultural impact which has quite honestly turned into a popularity contest. I feel as if everyone is competing to be Ken or Barbie and we're back to high school behavior in a way that's not healthy.
Scores are one way for brand marketers and PR folks to create a list of targeted bloggers and tweeters they can go after, aka a list of the most influential voices who must hear about their product or service. I get it as I've been on the pitching line - both in front of it and in recent years, on the receiving end with We Blog the World.
As Geoff points out, the most influential people in any given sector aren’t necessarily on social media. They hire other people to serve as community managers. As one example, Klout only gives President Barack Obama an Influence Score of 48.
While we do need analytics and tools for measuring, they need to take offline influence into consideration as well as more complex elements and texture that can extracted from people's social graphs.
It's time to bring in the socialogists and anthropologists. One of the best talks I've heard in awhile on a Web-something stage was in October at Web 2.0 Summit by Intel's Genevieve Bell, an Australian born anthropologist and researcher. She is the director of Intel Corporation's Interaction and Experience Research and her talk was begging the question: what if we built data for humans rather than devices?
Looking at data from an anthropoligical and "human" perspective (bring on more women please), means that we can take the science out of the analytics just long enough to get the pieces that make up the multiple facets of what makes someone who they are into the "measurement" pool.
Christopher Poole (aka @moot69 on Twitter) also raised the point at the same conference that who we are online may not necessarily be who we are offline. In other words, my social graph online may be very different from who I am in my personal life or frankly want to be...the games we have to play with social media to be part of the conversation -- authentic voice or not -- in order to keep up with metrics and measurement are currently robotic and linear at best.
Relationships are what really matter and building them take time. I've been working on (yes, while I LOVE it, it's work and takes time), building relationships for over twenty years and yet, my Klout score is lower than someone who's barely been in business or is even old enough to have a relationship with someone longer than a few years of their adult life.
Geoff also refers to this in his post: "without a relationship, it would be extremely hard to get that high scoring influencer to invest energy into your effort. Instead you would have to focus on the magic middle and build your own influence from the ground up."
Gavin Heaten refers to Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties”. While the original post is now a few years old, his point is still relevant. "Social influence and its impact on action is determined by a large number of “weak ties”. So those blogs which are built around an identity which is well-known to its audience (strong ties) is less likely to carry social influence."
Yet, buzz agents, PR people, marketers and large brands are deciding who's influential or beyond that, who can move their brand or sell products inside that brand....all based on these scores.
I went to the Travel Blog Exchange (known among those in the biz as TBEX) in Vancouver for the first time this past year and it was loaded with travel vendors, resorts, hotel chains, restaurants, retailers and more vying for travel blogger's time and ultimately "ink."
While I spend a few hours a day nuturing a travel and culture blog, I also run a business. Many of these bloggers are doing this full time so are spending a lot of time gathering content from the world's most popular destinations and there is an inherent value in that. Yet, many of these 21-25 year old bloggers are enjoying free trips around the world on some brand's dime based on Klout scores and other things like it.
Fair enough, trust me, I wish blogging were around when I backpacked through SE Asia, Australia, Africa and Europe when I was 22. But I think some other form of value will be necessary in the future as online publishing is being rewritten.
I often wonder if I were blogging and tweeting at 22, whether I would have spent less time chatting with a villager next to a fire on some remote mountain had I been loaded down with technology? When I went on those adventures, I wore nothing but a mid-sized rucksack on my back and an old Fujica AX3. My main consideration was making sure my film didn't get roasted in the Southeast Asian sun or when I went through security lines at airports.
Today when I travel, Foursquare and Twitter (via Hootsuite) are close companions. I often tweet in real time as I'm walking down an escalator and see something interesting and at times, can get so wrapped up in following streams, that sometimes I forget to have a conversation with the guy from Chicago or Tokyo standing next to me.
It's far too easy to get caught up in check-ins, status updates and Klout scores and there's no one who can disagree, that its addictive. It's precisely what makes gamification a godsend to marketers today. And yet with all these distractions, what are we losing and are we forgetting what "real influence" and "real relationships" are in the process?
Refer to my Google+ blog post which talks about data overload and over consumption.
Two decades ago, I would have had a Klout score of zero in the travelsphere and yet by the age of 25, I had been to more places than many travel writers at magazines and newspapers I met along the way.
I didn't spend any time building relationships with influential 'travel sources,' but with the locals I met en route and here is where I captured magical stories, most of which were written down in an old fashioned diary every night by a fire or from a rickety bed.
I would argue that in a world where the lines between marketers and content creators and publishers are muddy, that large brands should ask for more than a little link love, or a certain number of tweets. How about strategic feedback based on years of valuable insights, experience and perhaps connections to people where both sides benefit in a mutually positive way? Airlines take note. It's not rocket science, it's called listening to your customers, and not just those with high Klout scores. Pay attention to what customers are saying -- on and offline -- and implement changes so they're singing your praises alongside your marketing department.
Another example of a missed opportunity for "influencer collaboration". This past summer, I was flown out to a conference with about six other bloggers and while I was given hashtag and Twitter data as well as the program in advance, I had no knowledge of who was attending the conference so I could connect with people who shared similar interests and passions in advance.
Imagine the power of my writing a story about the work of a few of the attendees as well as their speakers? Ammunition for selling tickets the following year, especially if a new initiative formed as a result.
At events where everyone is interesting and has a story to share, the magic of what can be discovered doesn't always happen on the stage. 90% of my best stories are gathered off the stage and compelling input is often found from those who are not asked to speak or haven't written a book.
And, did those speakers who authored books know the bloggers and journalists who were attending? They should have known in advance so they could have taken the opportunity to send us a copy of their book to read before their presentation. Insights would have been much deeper and after-the-talk conversations much more powerful.
Sure, we all could have done our own homework and sure, if we were interested in a particular speaker over another, we could have proactively ordered their book on our own. That's not my point. In a world of over data and over pitching, we need aggregators and curators, and human ones are often the most powerful ones.
Proactively faciliating those connections in a way that is more powerful and intimate increases the likelihood of more stories, especially ones may include more depth and texture.
I think that marketing and PR people have to not only become content creators on multiple channels but also strategic faciliators, aggregators and curators as well. I also think that asking bloggers, tweeters and other online influencers for input into their processes, products, services and ways of communicating will be critical to making this new ecosystem purr.
Events like TBEX for the travel industry, BlogWorldExpo for bloggers and social media addicts, TED for those who thrive on ideas and innovation, DAVOS for those who are participating in the global economy in some way, the national auto show for those who live and breathe cars and thousands of others were created for a reason. Sure, someone thought of an event that would draw people together including sponsors and they could profit from the outcome.
But the real draw for those who attend, even those who fork out the money to host, is the networking and the value of that "in-person" networking over the years. It was one of the reasons people were so upset when COMDEX died, the largest computer show of its kind in the U.S., an event that drew together anyone and everyone who mattered in the industry once a year in the ugly sprawling city of sin Las Vegas.
There, we built a community, and old timers still talk about memories they shared -- in the flesh, not online -- where stories, drinks, food, dancing, ideas, demos and deals were all shared. TED is a great example of a community which has been created both on and offline, and now extended through TEDx events throughout the world.
Relationships are built by investing time in people. In Dublin recently, a group of us were brought to the Irish President's residence and a day earlier, we all listened to the Trinity Orchestra at a college older than the U.S. - there's nothing in an online world, social influence or not, that can take away from those shared memories and moments, some of which may have showed a precious vulnerable side to someone you dare not share online for online is not where that "exchange" belongs.
A deeper dive into what really makes up influence, which includes trust, will improve the current ecosystem we now embrace. It may also change the cast of characters we currently hold in high esteem when honesty, real openness and "human influence" replaces old schoolXYZ networks that keeps things in status quo, maintaining the same dozen voices we hear from again and again, particularly in the online publishing world.
Here, Geoff is spot on when he says "when we focus on influence rankings — tools that quantify a media form’s participants like it was run by journalists — we walk away from the basic truth about these particular types of media. They are relational. They are SOCIAL media.
So, by focusing on lists and not dialoguing and adding value through relevant content and investment, a practitioner is not present. Their effort is bound to have fundamental weaknesses. Building relationships in real life at events, meetings, and through social media are the ways to cultivate better influence.
And oh man, I love his ending: "what is the real reason to quantify big social media influencers? If relationships are your desired outcome, why waste time?"
We've paid so much attention to data for data sake and the last century has paid an unfair advantage to scientific knowledge and stats, that we need to rewrite the rules of what holds value in and out of the boardroom. Francis Cholle in his book The Intuitive Compass takes 223 pages to tell you why our intuition (the quadrant which is defined by relationships and creativity) is critical to succeeding in the next century. (book review coming on We Blog the World before the end of the year in the Books category).
A fundamental question to think about is this: will Klout & other measurement tools like it define and control you or will you define and control them? If we are to innovate, shouldn't we step up and tell the data what really matters? In a Genevieve Bell world, we'd start with humanity and relationships and build up and out from there.
Photo credits in order of appearance: Garagehangover, Obama shot unknown, John Ryan & Associates, a Facebook stream, Selfleadership.com.
November 3, 2011 in America The Free, Europe, Magic Sauce Media, On Blogging, On Branding, On Geo-Location, On Innovation, On Journalism, On People & Life, On Social CRM, On Technology, On the Future, PR & Marketing, Reflections, Social Media, WBTW, Web 2.0 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
November 02, 2011
Ireland Prime Minister Enda Kenny on Technology at #FoundersIreland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny came to the Founders event in Dublin this past week to talk about the importance of technology and Ireland's commitment to its expansion and innovation as a major contribution to a growing economy both at home and abroad.
October 02, 2011
VatorSplash's Start-Up Innovators: From Education & Games to Money Transfer & eCommerce
Vator (short for innovator) is one of the largest business networks dedicated to entrepreneurship in the U.S. Founded and run by industry veteran, Bambi Francisco (am a fan of her work), VatorSplash is an off-shoot within the Vator umbrella, which are evening events held in San Francisco highlighting start-ups and early adopter inovators.
The latest one was in late September and as always, it was held at the very cool and hip Cafe du Nord on Market Street, a small and eclectic space with character in San Francisco's Castro District.
In addition to the VatorSplash events, Vator consists of Vator.tv, a leading platform for entrepreneurs and innovators to connect and learn from one another. Vator.tv has more than 75,000 members and high-tech companies, using the service to effectively communicate with their partners, investors, media and customers.
Below is a shot of the Glancee team, yes...another social network. Their pitch? Remember the feeling of talking to someone new, realizing that you have a dear friend in common and that you both love that artist only you know about? Glancee helps you discover these hidden connections and meet with people important to you. Using their app, you can explore the profiles of people nearby and be notified when somebody has common friends or mutual interests.
Below is Webdoc co-founder Vincent Borel doing a demo of their social platform, which is designed to empower people to express themselves and interact with others online quickly and easily. Imagine mixing any kind of media you want (videos, photos (inc slides shows), applications, text, and more onto a white blank canvas simply by dragging and dropping. Then, once you have your "creation", you can simply embed it anywhere - your blog, website, as a Facebook landing page and more. What's so slick about it is that its so easy to use and quick to create.
VatorSplash' top ten finalists include: MindGames, an app which builds trivia and knowledge-based games for fans of sports, music, politics and more. Fans compete with others fans and against their archrivals for pride, prizes and fun.
Nooche is a peer-to-peer money transfer system, which allows you to easily and quickly send money to friends. Nooch enables payments through your smartphone, whether its to settle a bet or just send a birthday gift in a matter of seconds.
BuildingLayer is an intuitive mapping and way-finding solution for indoor spaces. Social Annex helps eCommerce sites monetize social media through engagement, so influential visitors can drive additional referral sales from their friends/followers.
Capseo uses crowdsourcing to deliver on-performance Web marketing through its community of influencers. Capeseo's algorithms authomatically analyze a website, building a list of tasks in order to find the best skills available to improve its influence.
Lastly, StUdill.com (talk about a complicated spelling and name to remember - c'mon guys), is attempting to establish itself as the first nationwide on-line college textbook exchange service. They transform the college textbook trading paradigm by offering a resolution to the historically high cost of college textbooks. (website is currently password protected but should be opening up soon).
Speakers and judges included David Blumberg, Russell Bertuccelli, Laura Bushnell, Noah Doyle, Josh Felser, Mark Goines, David Hornik, Richard Hsu, Brian Jacobs, Joe Kraus, Woody Marshall, Eghosa Omoigui, Cindy Padnos, Andrew Ross, Adam Smith, Alex Rosen, Bill Tai, Rob Theis, and Geoff Yang among others.
September 30, 2011
The History of Twitter and All Its Magic Moments
An interesting history of where Twitter started and all of it's magic moments leading up to today.
September 29, 2011
Aneesh Chopra: Blue Buttoning Our Own Data Will Fuel Innovation & Empower Americans
If you haven't heard of the name before, Aneesh Chopra is the United States Chief Technology Officer, where he serves as an Assistant to the President and Associate Director for Technology within the Office of Science & Technology Policy. Whooah Nelly, that's a mouthful of a title.
In other words, he works to advance the President’s technology agenda by fostering new ideas and encouraging government-wide coordination to help the country meet its goals from job creation, to reducing health care costs, to protecting the homeland.
I had a chance to listen to him speak at the Idea Festival recently, where his talk focused on the President's mission and goals, with a central core theme to make it happen: working from the bottom up, not the top down and opening up data so others can create and innovate with it, and we, as a nation, can thrive.
Here's what they're currently focused on within the above framework:
- Putting more people back to work
- Boosting access to capital for high growth companies
- Turning job seekers to job creators
- Unleashing the mobile broadband revolution
- Modernizing 35,000 schools
- Making government services transparent to job creators
- Open Government aka the Start Up America initiative
- Patent reform
- Catalyze breakthroughs
Technology was a big part of his message as he echoes Obama's pitch, "for our families and our businesses, high speed wireless service and mobile is the next train station, it’s the next off-ramp..it’s how we’ll spark innovation, new investment, new jobs." He also referenced Silicon Valley start-ups on more than one occasion, including Instagram and Crowdflower.
Aneesh says that there's an aministration commitment to unleash market opportunities by framing current or proposed policies to inspired entrepreneurs and gaining valuable policy feedback for iteration with an emphasis on healthcare, education and energy.
Where is the puck heading?
"We need breakthroughs," he says. "The only way is to tap into new hubs outside Silicon Valley." Hear hear Aneesh.
He also talked about education dominance, pushing software that adapts to how students learn, inspiration for the proposed ARPA-ED. They want to open up the data to teachers and make it accessible to them and their students, regardless of where they are in the country.
Another challenge they face he throws the audience's way is the clean energy revolution. They're hoping that ARPA-E investments and NIST standards activities will spur creativity.
He cites the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as an example, America's center for weather data. The weather industry is worth about $2 billion he reminds and "they're fueled because of open government data."
Aneesh adds, "we can also encourage market transparency." Healthcare.gov is a comprehensive catalog of insurance options, an effort to create more transparency than ever before. You’ll be able to find pricing data, how often an insurance company charges a premium, and how often were people rejected (denied coverage for whatever reason).
He also mentioned “Blue Button”, a public/private initiative that scales, where veterans can download their personal health information from their My HealtheVet account. My HealtheVet users who receive VA health care services can also refill their prescriptions and view their appointments, allergies, and laboratory results online.
Why not transfer that kind of tool to other areas and industries he says, such as education. "Imagine if every student could get a downloadable document of his/her assessment, a personalized platform that translates from student performance to market reality. We need personalized platforms for each of our children that can translate into something meaningful. This is the kind of thing that can fuel products and services. Find where the data sits and find out a way to liberate that data.”
He adds, "We're liberating government data & if people can become billionaires because of it, God Bless." The audience laughs.
He continued to push the open government throughout his talk including in the Q&A at the end, which was incredibly well received. (note: while the audience had visitors from the west coast, DC, the north, NYC and other places, there was a large number of locals - aka the midwest meets the south...in other words, family values and education are high priorities).
Certainly blue buttoning our own data is going to fuel innovation and empower individuals. Isn't it where we have to go? If we don't, we become victims rather than creators of our own lives and destinies in more ways than one.
September 29, 2011 in America The Free, Conference Highlights, Europe, On Being Green, On Education, On Health, On Innovation, On Mobile & Wireless, On Politics, On Technology, On the Future, Web 2.0 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
September 21, 2011
How We Need to Teach Our Daughters and Sons to Think & BE
A man who views her as property-and a man who views her properly. A man who lusts after her-and a man who loves her. A man who believes he is God's gift to women-and a man who remembers a woman was God's gift to man. And then teach our boys to be that kind of a man."
The above was posted by a friend of a close friend. Thought it was "spot on" and wanted to share.
September 20, 2011
The Pope & the CEO: Lessons in Business Leadership Shared
Out now is a new book with a quirky and enticing name: The Pope & The CEO, written by someone I used to work with at an East Coast software company: Andreas Widmer.
It's one of the few books written by collaborators and close, personal witnesses of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s life, as Widmer draws on his experiences as a Swiss Guard for Pope John Paul II. Through this experience and years in the technology industry, he shares his lessons in business leadership.
The Pope & The CEO outlines nine principles for business leadership including: Know who you are, Know what’s right, Know how to choose what’s right, Know where you are, Know your team, and Practice detachment as a handful. Each lesson includes a how to guide and exercise.
Widmer highlights some of his personal interactions with John Paul II, providing insight into the little known culture of the Swiss Guards, and draws on his experience as an entrepreneur and advocate of the free markets within the international development community.
On a parallel front, the current economic and ethical crisis evokes an openness to fresh models of leadership and trust.
Left disillusioned by long-respected institutions and supposed business-hero icons, many people and organizations look for leaders and frameworks in which to place their trust. The Pope & The CEO translates some of Pope John Paul II’s legacy into business leadership lessons that respond to this gap.
September 10, 2011
Fostering Media Connections for Foster Children Globally
The Foster care system globally is getting a helping hand from Ryan Blankshire who talks about her project here with colleague Eytan Altman. Ryan's goal is to give the Foster Care system and issues, much more coverage than they currently have.
September 08, 2011
SOcial, LOcal, MObile, the Power Behind LeWeb's 2011 Start-Up Competition
SOcial, LOcal, MObile is the new black for startups this fall say the Guidewire Group who are powering this year's LeWeb'11 Startup Competition, centered on the SoLoMo theme (that's social, local, mobile, for the non-geeks who haven't memorized yet another acronym).
The annual showcase of emerging companies will honor the Top 3 startups creating state-of-the-art apps for the SoLoMo consumer or business markets. They are looking for the most exciting and innovative ideas that exploit the power of social engagement and location awareness of tablet and mobile phone devices. To be eligible, startups need to have less than €1M of investment.
Applicants will use Guidewire Group's forthcoming G/SCORE Analytics platform to profile and take a G/SCORE assessments. Those assessments, along with Guidewire Group analyst and community input, will be select 16 finalists to pitch for a spot among the Top 3 at the december conference in Paris.
To learn more about the competition, visit LeWeb's start-up competition page.
September 8, 2011 in America The Free, Conference Highlights, Europe, Events, On Geo-Location, On Innovation, On Mobile & Wireless, On Search, On Social CRM, On Technology, Social Media, WBTW, Web 2.0 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
September 03, 2011
Eastern Europe Attitudes Shift as Tourism Leads & Corrupts the Way
Life was different and people were present more often than not, so lacking even in a 1980 and 1990-something America.
The wild west didn't have cell phones and we weren't glued to social networks, yet we still weren't as present and as engaged as Europeans were, at least that was my first experience of the place -- on the continent and the UK.
I've been back to Europe dozens of times since I moved back to the states, but more often than not, the goal was less about being committed to a life there and more about networking or sadly, even shopping. Or, a conference. Yawn.
In recent years, at meet-ups and conferences, everyone had their laptops open and cell phones handy so the "chat" was more to it than it was with each other. Yes, even in Europe, largely because the events were within a particular ecosystem, the one I live in inside the bowels of Silicon Valley -- technology.
I went on a walkabout to London (one of the places I lived btw) a few years back and decided to disengage from technology and re-engage with people and my trusty Canon 7D. One result aside from quality time with old South African and English friends in the burbs was a photo book entitled: Faces of London. I probably "shot" 10,000 photos during my time there across at least a dozen neighborhoods and had nothing short of a blast.
Even though I had "alone" time on my European "city" trips (Paris, Munich, Dublin, Rome, etc) in recent years, I didn't have the same kind of deja vu moments I had in Prague and Budapest over the past couple of weeks.
It started in Budapest where I met with a few start-ups and by chance, was lucky to be there for their annual "Independence Day" equivalent. I stayed along the river at a boutique 4 star hotel, one with a fabulous view of Parliament.
While I have done business with western and northern Europe, I haven't directly worked with Eastern Europe. In London, you can do a walkabout and get completely lost in the fabric of the city and no one will quite notice.
In Eastern Europe, even though physically I could blend in with the city's fabric, there are less tourists and the kind of tourists are likely different than what you'd find on the streets near Knightsbridge and the UK's own Parliament. The same applies to Paris.
What I forgot about the east was how structured things were despite the fact that in many ways, their bohemian past makes them rule-breakers rather than conformers. Like the rest of Europe, they seem to be obsessed with privacy so conversations about social media tend to get interesting.
AND, like southern Europe, things move at a snail's pace. If I send an email at 10 pm on a Friday night at home in California, chances are that email is answered by Saturday morning if I'm pinging someone in the states, east OR west coast. If you want to continue a discussion from a Friday meeting that went from 10 to 2 on a Friday, chances are you won't pick up that dialogue until Monday afternoon or Tuesday at the earliest. (not abnormal of course but in the land of technology start-ups, no response for 3 days feels like an eternity, at least to this overly connected baby).
I was hooked up with an iPhone on Tmobile which didn't work more than it did. That said, there were a number of free Internet cafes in both Budapest and Prague so if I really wanted to give the cities amiss, miss out on the history and culture and merely be connected, it wouldn't be too difficult to do so. Hotels still charge a fortune a day for connectivity and it's not always that fast.
Being connected and "staying" connected makes it pretty hard to truly be present with a destination's history, antiquity and human stories, all of which capture 700 year old castles, its walls and ceilings not to mention the nearby cathedral's altars and stained glass windows.
What was interesting about this trip was the polarity of things. On one hand, I was not as inspired to "shoot" as much as I normally am; somehow I anticipated I'd shoot 30,000 photos or more of romantic Prague, pegged the Paris of the east.
Yet, because of the commercialism I couldn't seem to escape from, I found it hard to be connected to my surroundings because in the foreground, there were countless groups of tourists with cameras and brightly colored sneakers and segway tours with loud-mouthed guides shouting at the dozen of so people in its wake.
Even in Paris, one of the most visited city in the world, I can still barter in a market, but in Budapest and Prague, they were less willing to barter and their prices were steep, i.e., $40 for a barrette sold by a street vendor, $70 for a plate of salad, pasta (no meat) and one glass of wine, $200 for pottery, and so on.
While entrepreneurism wasn't at the core of their attitudes, something had shifted and it was much worse in Prague than Budapest which is much less commercial.
In Prague, tour buses zipped in, leaving droves of people in groups who followed those in front of them like sheep not really lisening to their tour guide who spent far too long telling the history of a brick statue than anyone should.
"Dribble, dribble, 14th century, dribble dribble," her voice echoed as about a quarter of the audience tried to follow along while others snapped shots of the statue they'll never remember the name of later. Then there were others who were merely starring off into the distance, still trying to recover from jetleg.
I ducked under and above the dribble and the wall of people who stood so close that it was hard for me to find my way to a free space. Alas, freedom. Blue sky. Clouds. Soft wind. Breeze. And then, more of them pile out, clinging to each other for safety and belonging, only later to be found at some Americanized or Anglicized pub where everyone speaks English and all the menus have prices listed in Euros as their primary currency.
In Prague, I found myself in angst by day four, ready to declare Prague the Eastern European Disneyland, a city who sadly sold its soul to the yanks, with its McDonalds and KFC scattered through its old town. Local artists have grown so accustomed to the tour buses and wealthy tourists that small photos were $30 and above on the Charles Bridge and a small regular coffee was about $4 a pop.
Grant you, I began to realize quite awhile ago now that the U.S. was on its way to being a third world country and its currency was going along with that title: Thank You George Bush. It was no more prominent in a place like Prague where prices felt more like Paris than East Europe, some of which was the result of the dollar being in the toilet. 20-something year olds even remarked how they remembered the dollar being at 40 when they were younger (5-8 years ago) and today it stands at about 15-16 to the Czech currency making most purchases a serious consideration more than an impulse buy.
Other aspects of disenchantment and disillusion had to do with the fact that Prague had become so commercialized that it was hard to break free from its Disney-like facade. The only way to avoid it was to jump on a metro or tram, choose a funky neighborhood ten or so stops out, get off and start walking. (away from town).
And, so I did. There was no other choice really. Not wanting to declare Prague a commercial write-off (it's beauty is far too magnificent and its musicians too awe-inspiring), I discovered side-streets and neighborhoods that locals told me.
I requested grit and grunge. I requested working class communities. I requested graffiti. I requested former bomb shelters. I requested local pubs and bars. I requested cafes with local prices and local service. I requested parks and steps, stairs and alleyways. I requested stone walls, weathered and torn. I requested places that didn't have places to serve me at all, but merely buildings, houses and terraces where people lived and life was exactly the same every day.
The discovery process began of course, but like every European city, you really need a few months (a year is better) to really get acquainted with its smell, culture, nuances and quirks. The more I meandered outside the inner walls, the longer I wanted to stay. The more I got stuck in old town and the tourist areas, which seem to spread for miles in Prague, the more I wanted to leave. (even Paris felt less saturated I thought).
I met 26 year old Marek, who told me his life story. I found him on a side street and intrigued by the fact that he was in old-fashioned overalls, I learned about his trips to various countries, all of which were escapes from commitment and a "real job," the primary reason he left Prague in the first place.
He would work for a month or so at high wages, so he'd have enough in his pocket for a few months of travel and then the cycle would repeat itself. (not uncommon for adventure-types in their early twenties, but I got the sense that Marek -- a high school drop-out -- would be doing this two decades from now.
He lived on "weed" and not much else. Connections with interesting people and diversity seemed to be important to him and after awhile (a long while), he admitted to the main thing missing in his life: a woman in his life, just one. Aren't we so much more alike than we are different, despite our demographics, despite our income levels, despite our goals?
Then there was the placid nature of my late twenty year massage therapist in Prague. She didn't seem to know the protocols of more formerly trained therapists yet she listened to what you needed and responded like a robot. I found it hard to find a male masseuse and wondered how much that had to do with protocols and culture than it did interests, norms and trends.
Everyone seemed to be afraid to break the rules, whether that was giving you a cup of tea 15 minutes after the breakfast dining room closed or sampling a taste of ice cream because there were 25 flavors to choose from. (on that front, the ice cream in both Budapest and Prague were so well presented, you thought for sure you must be in Italy not Eastern Europe -- and might I add, ten times more tasty than the U.S.)
My experience of Prague was about as close to my memory of it from the mid-eighties as Disneyland is from central Africa. Because of its intense overly processed structure, I had to move beyond my notion that Prague sold out to the yanks -- from its coffee to its tour buses to its castle tours and postcards to its outlandish prices.
The talent of the local musicians made most of this melt away, not to mention the incredible textures in the bridge walls and other antiquated buildings in the city. Then there was the outstanding art, conversations with local vendors and shop owners and overdoing it daily with chocolate, wine, duck, venison, lamb, foie gras and other such delicacies without feeling guilty for taking it all in.
Certainly a different experience than twenty years ago or even ten. The East has caught up with the west even if its governments have not. Go but go with more research and be sure to get out of the city centers into the neighborhoods and have conversations with people -- young and old -- and hear their stories. After all, isn't that what makes every trip memorable?