Upgrades and Happiness

My brother moved into a new apartment over the weekend and as we were gathering his stuff together, I realized he didn’t have a large HDTV for football season. As a student of ancient history and a starving academic, he’s grown accustomed to austerity. But seeing as we’ve both been NFL junkies since childhood, as his older brother, I couldn’t let that stand.

Besides, after seven years with my perfectly good 42” projection LCD HDTV, I was feeling the itch for an upgrade. You know, a Samsung flat panel, hang it on the wall, drool-worthy HDTV. I figured if I gave him my old, perfectly good HDTV for his new apartment, I’d have a great reason for an upgrade and he’d save some money. It was a clear win-win to me. So, as I write this post, my apartment is sans TV — maybe that’s why my blogging juices are flowing –- and I’m sans a sizeable chunk of cash.

My shiny new Samsung gets delivered this week. I spent a shade more than I wanted to, and I’m waiting for buyer’s remorse. It might have started already; hopefully that fades when it’s finally hooked up and I’m giggling at my DVR archive of Tosh.0 episodes of pixelated YouTube footage in stunning 1080p plasma glory.

But this purchase, along with today’s blog post by Elisabeth Michaud, got me thinking: Why are we so hung up on upgrading all the time, in all facets of life? Is nothing ever good enough? Her post is about peers treating their romantic relationships like their careers, and she advises them to stop doing it. It’s a concise missive, and when I read it today, it actually left me wanting more, one hallmark of any great piece of writing. Even better than that, she got me to think, and in this case, she got me to think about this idea of the ever-looming upgrade. It’s a concept that’s bothered me for a while, and I continue to feel its intrusion in multiple aspects of life.

Our economy is largely predicated on selling us disposable things we don’t really need. We’re constantly reminded that there’s always something bigger and better out there. Be them houses, cars, TVs, jobs, social status, mates, friends, bodies, or anything you can think of, there’s always another upgrade to be had. And we’ve foolishly convinced ourselves we truly deserve it and desperately need it.

Maybe we do deserve some of it. But the trend disturbs me, and left unchecked, habitual upgrading breeds dissatisfaction with everyday life. If you’re always looking for something better, can you ever truly be content? Does the cycle ever end?

These aren’t new questions, and if my TV story didn’t make it clear, I’m your typical red-blooded American male, susceptible to the wiles of shiny new electronics, Apple products and other material possessions. But when it comes to relationships, career and life in general, I’ve always been one to appreciate my surroundings. I’d like to think that won’t change. But the older I get, the less contentment I recognize in others.

Before this post turns into Jerry Maguire’s mission statement, allow me to reiterate: it’s OK to drool over that new iPad or a bigger apartment. But the next time you start thinking your girlfriend isn’t successful enough, or the weather is more agreeable in another city, take a step back. Rethink it before you, um, upgrade. Are you really missing out? What need remains unfulfilled? Are you unhappy, or just bored? It’s worth consideration.

As for my new HDTV? If it turns out to be a mistake, I’ve got 30 days to bring it back to Best Buy, no questions asked.

Life, on the other hand, doesn’t come with a return policy.

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Old School Social Networking: Meet Some People in Real Life

It’s been about a year since I made a major change in my professional life. Last summer, with another Celtics season behind me, I remember walking home from work and wondering to myself, “What am I going to do with myself this summer?”

Working for a professional basketball team means late nights, 70-hour weeks, watching three or four games a week, and scarce free time for the better part of six months — eight months if you make a run to the NBA Finals. So when the offseason arrives, it’s something of a relief, but there’s a bit of a void as well. You’re not used to 40-hour weeks and if you’re like me, you can often find yourself, well, bored.

But boredom was only part of the equation. More than anything, I realized that I worked in digital media, an environment that changes almost daily, and yet I knew very few professionals who had similar lines of work in Boston. While I had made plenty of contacts across the sports industry, my digital marketing/social media network was non-existent.

And sure, you can learn about the digital industry by reading and tweeting every day. But you can learn a lot more by talking to people. In person.

While I’ve always been outgoing (some would argue I’m borderline obnoxious), one thing I’d never been completely comfortable with was going to networking events. I always felt like my free time shouldn’t be work-related, precisely because it was so limited in the first place. And talking to strangers in a forced setting never appealed.

But I’d decided I needed to make that change. I went to a few networking events thrown by the gang at BostInnovation, a group of young entrepreneurs who are all involved with a host of different startups here in the Boston area. And after meeting some interesting folks at some of those events, I actually started looking forward to the next gathering. Then I started to actively seek out new events, while continuing to stay involved with the gang at BostInnovation.

Between going to networking events and getting more active with social media for my own “brand,” if you will, things started to change and change quickly.

Launching and finally activating my professional twitter account (@peterstringer) led in part to speaking about the Celtics’ digital marketing efforts and success at conferences around the country, something I’d never even considered in the past. After each panel or presentation, another opportunity was knocking. And suddenly, my eyes opened to the power of networking.

Real world networking, that is.

In the past year, I’ve probably met about 100 professionals I didn’t previously know. That number may not be very impressive, but for someone who actively avoided networking events in the past, it’s a sign of a sea change in my own career. It hasn’t been a 100% positive experience; by becoming more visible, I’ve made myself very accessible to pesky vendors who’ll use every possible angle to approach me with their miracle social media software.

Overall, that’s a small price to pay.

So if you’re not doing it already, get out there. Meet some people in real life. Just like the good ol’ days. It won’t hurt. I promise.

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Forget Facebook – Why LinkedIn Should Be More Worried About Google+

After a much-ballyhooed private beta launch that’s reached 18 million users, where does Google+ fit into the social networking landscape? Or better yet, who should really be worried about the search behemoth’s social networking arrival?

Google+ has drawn numerous comparisons to Facebook and the popular theme seems to be that Google is poised to take on Zuckerberg’s 700-million+ user empire. Facebook’s continued work to block contact exporting to Google+ is feeding that fire.

Still, I’d argue that LinkedIn, and to a lesser degree, Twitter, should be much more concerned with what’s brewing with Google+.

Google’s already suffered two well-documented stumbles in the social networking space over the last few years with Wave and Buzz, but it’s different this time around. Google+ quickly gained street cred with the social networking uber-gurus, and as the invitations trickle down to garden-variety social media experts and everyday folks, the hype and chatter continues to build.

But the question is, why? What has Google achieved with Google+ (Or should we really call it Google Circles? Or is that just one feature? Paging the Google marketing department…) that has everyone so excited? Will it really be a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” with Google regaining online supremacy and toppling Facebook?

I’d submit instead that digital-savvy people are more scared than anything. I know I am; I feel like Google’s finally gotten it (mostly) right, and as I result, I need to drop anchor in case Google+ explodes. The Circles concept is much more analogous to our real-life relationships than Facebook’s “friending” mechanism. People are quickly growing more comfortable with the idea of connecting online with nearly or complete unknowns, but still want privacy controls to filter their outgoing missives and basic data set. Facebook, despite continuously changing the rules of engagement, has failed to make this easy.

The Circles concept resonates for those of us with geek sensibilities, and so far we’re embracing Google+. Given the buzz, as soon as Google+ brand pages are available, I’ll launch one for the Boston Celtics, and add the +1 button is coming to as well. I presume similar organizations and brands will follow suit. Our new Google+ Celtics page won’t catch our five million Facebook “Likes” anytime soon, but if people are going to be discussing the brand there, we need to have a presence.

But here’s the big reason to watch Google+: Since Google’s already the reigning champion of search, it stands to reason that Google+ profiles could soon become the new social directory of the Internet. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken Google this long to figure it out, or at least to unleash it on the masses. After all, LinkedIn profiles and Twitter posts have been peppering Google’s search results for some time, and even the most pedestrian of social networkers understand that their contributions to these networks are highly searchable by default; in fact, that’s the whole point of LinkedIn for many of its users. So it stands to reason that Google’s been contemplating this step for a while.

But as I finally got around to fleshing out my Google profile this week — I’ve never been a Gmail guy so this was a fresh start for me — I really tried to think about what makes Google+ different, and why it’s so critical to participate. And despite the shiny new features like “Hangouts” and “Sparks” (something sports brands should keep an eye on), I keep coming back to search engine results.

Simply put, if you haven’t Googled yourself in a while, drop everything and do it now, or at least after you’ve finished reading here. Search results are constantly in flux, and you’d have to imagine that Google will eventually rate their own profile pages higher than third party results for a bunch of obvious reasons. The most obvious of which being dollar bills. So far, Google+ profiles are devoid of advertising. But how long will that last? Google draws almost all of its revenue from advertising. They literally make billions of dollars on this each year.

You do the math.

With 100 million users making white-collar wages, LinkedIn has built a highly-targeted audience that should carry incredible advertising value. Obviously, Google is interested in competing for this audience.

But back to what it all means for you. When it comes to basic personal branding, LinkedIn is the dominant platform. Chances are, if you meet a young professional today, you can track them down instantly on LinkedIn. But the profiles I’ve seen to date on Google+ appear largely professional in nature, and Google+ looks and feels much more like LinkedIn than Facebook, and that’s with good reason.

Unlike a Facebook page, where nightlife pictures are de rigueur and dominate the photo uploading activity with the understanding that they’re, um, mostly private, a Google+ profile seems inherently intended to be public. Unless you really want those college keg stand pics coming up in search results against your name, Google+ probably isn’t the place for them, even with privacy settings in place.

The young professionals set, and for that matter, anyone else who has a vested interest in building an online brand, seems to get that and be comfortable with it as well. If Google+ results are going to eventually be the first thing that comes up when you’re searched, you’d better control what shows up. You’re already working on your brand now with LinkedIn, a Twitter feed, and maybe even your own blog/portfolio site. But if you want to control it tomorrow, get your Google+ presence sorted now.

LinkedIn launched several years before the social media explosion, and because of that, most users are still reluctant to connect with people they don’t know. LinkedIn explicitly tells them not to do it, and for most people, that makes sense. A LinkedIn profile is a reasonable facsimile of a resume, and exposes quite a bit about one’s identity. With that in mind, LinkedIn profiles are typically kept private to users outside your network.

LinkedIn is vastly dissimilar from Twitter. There’s the strong perception that by connecting with someone on LinkedIn, you’re vouching for them; drawing that conclusion from a Twitter follow is a much greater stretch, although a retweet tends to convey that connotation.

That perception probably hurts LinkedIn’s growth, and it’s unlikely to change unless LinkedIn takes the Circles approach and acknowledges the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Currently, when you fill out the brief form to invite a connection on LinkedIn, the site warns you Important – Only invite people you know well and who know you.” When you click on this message, a pop-up window informs you, “Connecting to someone on LinkedIn implies you know them well.”

Google+ goes in the other direction, offering pre-fab circles called “Following” (“People you don’t know personally, but whose posts you find interesting”) and Acquaintances (“A good place to stick people you’ve met but aren’t particularly close to”), recognizing and encouraging the growing trend Twitter really popularized: following people and personalities that you’ll never likely meet in real life.

With all of that in mind, mainstream adoption will take time for Google+. Launching their iPhone app on Tuesday was another step in that process. Still, the average social networking user will need a compelling reason to find time for Google+ updates.

With all of that in mind, I asked an old college pal who’s in one of my Circles what he thinks of Google+ and its potential staying power. He Facebooks as much as the next guy, but isn’t on Twitter, just learned about Instagram last night, and has yet to do anything significant with his Google+ account.

His take: “I just don’t get it. There’s enough social media crap going on anyway. I mean, people keep adding me and I’m like, OK. Whatever.”

Sobering? Perhaps. Time will tell if it gains mass traction with the non-digerati. Still, amassing 18 million users in a two-week private beta is encouraging, and a reality check for the Foursquare fanboys out there who recently celebrated 10 million users after two years. While LinkedIn should officially be on watch, I don’t think Facebook has much to worry about in the short term.

That said, I’m sure they’re paying attention like the rest of us. Close attention.