Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pocket Gods (a story i wrote, and told, christmas eve 2009 for the people of westwinds)

Imagine a world where people carry around gods in their pockets, using them like charms to get what they want, be who they wish, and live however they like.

That’s our world, tonight.

Matthetes smiled as he jingled his new gods, jumbling them in his pockets like a potpourri of coins and marbles.

His Dad had given him his first god when he was thirteen – just a man. His first god was Ambition. Ambition had served him well, making him first in his class and head of school, landing him great job opportunities and a bright future.

But Ambition didn’t keep you warm at night, so Matthetes had run out and – with the help of a slender woman named Porneia – purchased Flesh. Flesh was a much better god than Ambition – more fun, more easily sated in the short term – but more difficult to manage. Flesh and Ambition didn’t always get along well, so Matthetes kept them – at first – in separate pockets.

Now, however, he felt like he should keep all his gods together – so Flesh and Ambition wrestled in his pants pocket with Media (to keep him informed), Fitness (to keep him healthy), and Downline (a demi-god that was supposed to temper Ambition with Relationship).

Matthetes had a full compliment of divinity with him at all times, and it paid off.

He was successful, contentented, fit, young, and eager.

He had it all.

At least he thought he did, until he met Rab. Rab was perched on a park bench drinking tea when Matthetes stumbled into him blindly.

Apologizing, Matthetes took the opportunity to introduce himself to his accidental companion.

Pardon me.

No problem at all, friend.

Really? I’m terribly sorry…name’s Matthetes.

Rab – the pleasure is all mine.

I was just coming back from the office, en route to the health food store before a stop at the gym, a nip at the bar, a short session at the studio, and then home for bed with Cindi…sorry, Kandi.

I was just thinking.

Pardon?

Thinking. I was appreciating this life and how grateful I am to be living it.

Matthetes had never heard anyone put it quite like that.

Me too. Would you like to join me?

At the store, the gym, the bar, the studio or with the confusing woman at your house?

Why…I guess any of it.

No thank you.

Suddenly curious: do you mind if I ask why not?

I have no need.

But won’t your gods be angry?

Ha! No. My God is not angered by a lack of busyness.

It’s more than just busyness, you know.

I know many things, but in that regard I confess an ignorance. I have traded my knowledge of Ambition for something sweeter. I have given up my understanding of the Fast Lane for the Narrow Way.

What are you talking about?

I am talking about God.

I know all about the gods…

No – you keep trinkets in your pants and call them divine. They are not. Just as you are not. Long ago I gave up my pocket gods and had God Himself put inside me. I’ve never since been the same.

That sounds….strange. Was it worth it?

Oh yes – it has been the most wonderful thing.

Then I shall have it done, too.

Oh no – my friend – I would not let you do that so recklessly. The process is called an Invitation – some combination of surgery (for it is invasive), and ritual (for it is mystical), and alchemy (for it is transformational) – is awful and painful and I shake to think of it still.

But you said it was worth it.

And it so was. It is. It ever more shall be. But I would not advise you to have God put inside you on a whim. He is too big for that.

Big?

And jealous. And greedy. And he grows.

With that, and a smile, Rab excused himself and walked off singing.

Matthetes reached into his pocket to play with his gods, eager to comfort himself after this strange exchange…but his gods were gone.

He had been robbed.

Scoundrel. He thought. Rab has robbed me, distracted me with cleverness and stolen my gods from the pockets of my pants, all the while binding my mind with his spell.

Rotter.

Matthetes skipped the health food store and the gym, but made up for it with two extra drinks with Cindi and Kandi. He woke up feeling stone-headed.

He went and got himself new gods on the way to work.
Truthfully, he had gotten tired of Flesh and Ambition was killing him,
so he grabbed Media and Downline
and Diet (Fitness was too expensive, but Diets were on sale)
and added Economy (because it was so focused)
and Novelty (because Flesh was too focused)
and spent the week trying them out.

He gave himself fully to the gods in his pocket but worried that something was wrong.

They didn’t work anymore.

He had minor success with his Downline, but couldn’t ever get his Diet to work. His Economy was always hampered by his love of Novelty – which seemed to deteriorate into Flesh anyhow.

He begged Media for an explanation, but he got an explanation for everything so he couldn’t remember the thing he had asked about.

Matthetes became disillusioned with his gods, then, and threw them all away. All his life he’d wanted, then got, then lost, then got, then been disappointed by, his gods.

And now they were gone.

And he felt no differently.

So he went to get the new God put into his heart.

It wasn’t as bad as Rab had made it out to be.
The surgery was invasive, but didn’t hurt as much as he’d anticipated.
The ritual was spooky, but it was the good-spooky
(more mystical, less haunting).
The alchemy was almost non-existent, though everyone attending assured Matthetes that a transformation had – in fact – taken place.

All in all, Matthetes was quite happy with his new God.

And he noticed a positive difference in his life right away. He felt more generous – giving away some of the money he’d squeezed and hoarded cheerfully – and he felt more loving – giving up girls who’s names sounded like Disney characters for a new gal he’d met, named Suzanne (she was a grad student, and an artist) – and he felt more…well, happy.

He was just plain happier.

This bliss lasted for a time, a season, who knows really how long it was…but then abruptly went away.

It was the oddest thing. Matthetes could feel God in his heart. He knew the God-in-his-heart was still there. Just as he had felt the God-in-his-heart alive and growing inside of him while being generous and loving and happy, so now he felt the God-in-his-heart even more alive and growing even larger inside of him.

But his life was going very poorly.

His job seemed meaningless and his friendships felt shallow and unfulfilling.

But still the God-in-his-heart continued to grow.

Suzanne was fantastic, but every time Matthetes was around her he felt sad and conflicted.

And the God-in-his-heart grew inside of him.

It felt like the God-in-his-heart wanted Matthetes to be living a completely different life – like nothing less would make the God-in-his-heart happy – and so Matthetes, instead of invoking the God in his heart like he’d conjured the pocket gods – felt like all he could do to satisfy God was completely change everything about him.

Because the God-in-his-heart was getting bigger inside of him.

So he quit his job, realizing that Ambition had given it to him and that the job itself was only a reminder of how empty he’d felt while petting the Ambition in his pocket.

And he distanced himself from his friends, because he knew that his Downline was still meddling in the purity of his relationships and he didn’t want his friends to be exploited anymore.

And he finally, sadly, even broke things off with Suzanne because she felt like Novelty but didn’t deserve it, and he treated her like Flesh even though she was more to him than that.

Matthetes, he tried to explain to them all, had to do this. It wasn’t even really him, but the God in his heart that had compelled him to act.

And, of course, all of this was so confusing because the pocket gods – the ones everyone had and everyone understood – always did what you wanted whereas the God in Matthetes heart had control of him and could never be used or employed to simply do what Matthetes wanted.

Everything was backwards now.

And the God-in-his-heart grew bigger still.

The God-in-his-heart grew – and Matthetes sold everything he owned and gave it to the poor.

The God-in-his-heart grew – and Matthetes went back to every person he’d ever wronged, or deceived, or cheated and made amends.

The God-in-his-heart grew – and Matthetes went on a journey, a pilgrimage, into the wilderness to (re)discover who he was and why he was alive.

It was miserable.

It was profoundly difficult.

Matthetes had lost it all.

He had nothing.

And the God-in-his-heart continued to grow inside of him.

As he was completely emptied out of all his Ambition,
his love for Flesh,
his addiction to Media,
his fantasy of Fitness and Diet and Novelty;
as his need for the pocket gods vanished Matthetes was left with only one certainty in all the world.

The God in his heart would always continue to grow.

And from that central truth he took strength.

The God-in-his-heart grew – and so would he.

That was the turning point – working together with the God-in-his-heart, cooperating with the God-in-his-heart,
Matthetes began to learn about achievement without pride,
love without lust,
pleasure without novelty,
health without anxiety,
economy without greed,
friendship without agenda…

His whole life was different.

He returned from his journey a new man.

The first person he went to see was Suzanne.

Suzanne – I was just thinking about this life, and appreciating it. I have traded my knowledge of Ambition for something sweeter. I have given up my understanding of the Fast Lane for the Narrow Way.

Would you like to join me?

It won’t be easy to have God inside you, but I can tell you it will be worth it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

12 days of christmas: day ten (gifts from uncle jeff and auntie amber)

1,000 True Fans

(found this great article from kevin kelly, via michael hyatt on twitter...loved this)


(also, see seth godin apply this theory to business here)


The long tail is famously good news for two classes of people; a few lucky aggregators, such as Amazon and Netflix, and 6 billion consumers. Of those two, I think consumers earn the greater reward from the wealth hidden in infinite niches.

But the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators. Individual artists, producers, inventors and makers are overlooked in the equation. The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices. Unless artists become a large aggregator of other artist's works, the long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales.

Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail?

One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author - in other words, anyone producing works of art - needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.


To raise your sales out of the flatline of the long tail you need to connect with your True Fans directly. Another way to state this is, you need to convert a thousand Lesser Fans into a thousand True Fans.

Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day's wages per year in support of what you do. That "one-day-wage" is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let's peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable. Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.

The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans. They are giving you their support directly. Maybe they come to your house concerts, or they are buying your DVDs from your website, or they order your prints from Pictopia. As much as possible you retain the full amount of their support. You also benefit from the direct feedback and love.

The technologies of connection and small-time manufacturing make this circle possible. Blogs and RSS feeds trickle out news, and upcoming appearances or new works. Web sites host galleries of your past work, archives of biographical information, and catalogs of paraphernalia. Diskmakers, Blurb, rapid prototyping shops, Myspace, Facebook, and the entire digital domain all conspire to make duplication and dissemination in small quantities fast, cheap and easy. You don't need a million fans to justify producing something new. A mere one thousand is sufficient.

This small circle of diehard fans, which can provide you with a living, is surrounded by concentric circles of Lesser Fans. These folks will not purchase everything you do, and may not seek out direct contact, but they will buy much of what you produce. The processes you develop to feed your True Fans will also nurture Lesser Fans. As you acquire new True Fans, you can also add many more Lesser Fans. If you keep going, you may indeed end up with millions of fans and reach a hit. I don't know of any creator who is not interested in having a million fans.

But the point of this strategy is to say that you don't need a hit to survive. You don't need to aim for the short head of best-sellerdom to escape the long tail. There is a place in the middle, that is not very far away from the tail, where you can at least make a living. That mid-way haven is called 1,000 True Fans. It is an alternate destination for an artist to aim for.

Young artists starting out in this digitally mediated world have another path other than stardom, a path made possible by the very technology that creates the long tail. Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum hits, bestseller blockbusters, and celebrity status, they can aim for direct connection with 1,000 True Fans. It's a much saner destination to hope for. You make a living instead of a fortune. You are surrounded not by fad and fashionable infatuation, but by True Fans. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.

A few caveats. This formula - one thousand direct True Fans -- is crafted for one person, the solo artist. What happens in a duet, or quartet, or movie crew? Obviously, you'll need more fans. But the additional fans you'll need are in direct geometric proportion to the increase of your creative group. In other words, if you increase your group size by 33%, you need add only 33% more fans. This linear growth is in contrast to the exponential growth by which many things in the digital domain inflate. I would not be surprise to find that the value of your True Fans network follows the standard network effects rule, and increases as the square of the number of Fans. As your True Fans connect with each other, they will more readily increase their average spending on your works. So while increasing the numbers of artists involved in creation increases the number of True Fans needed, the increase does not explode, but rises gently and in proportion.

A more important caution: Not every artist is cut out, or willing, to be a nurturer of fans. Many musicians just want to play music, or photographers just want to shoot, or painters paint, and they temperamentally don't want to deal with fans, especially True Fans. For these creatives, they need a mediator, a manager, a handler, an agent, a galleryist -- someone to manage their fans. Nonetheless, they can still aim for the same middle destination of 1,000 True Fans. They are just working in a duet.

Third distinction. Direct fans are best. The number of True Fans needed to make a living indirectly inflates fast, but not infinitely. Take blogging as an example. Because fan support for a blogger routes through advertising clicks (except in the occasional tip-jar), more fans are needed for a blogger to make a living. But while this moves the destination towards the left on the long tail curve, it is still far short of blockbuster territory. Same is true in book publishing. When you have corporations involved in taking the majority of the revenue for your work, then it takes many times more True Fans to support you. To the degree an author cultivates direct contact with his/her fans, the smaller the number needed.

Lastly, the actual number may vary depending on the media. Maybe it is 500 True Fans for a painter and 5,000 True Fans for a videomaker. The numbers must surely vary around the world. But in fact the actual number is not critical, because it cannot be determined except by attempting it. Once you are in that mode, the actual number will become evident. That will be the True Fan number that works for you. My formula may be off by an order of magnitude, but even so, its far less than a million.

I've been scouring the literature for any references to the True Fan number. Suck.com co-founder Carl Steadman had theory about microcelebrities. By his count, a microcelebrity was someone famous to 1,500 people. So those fifteen hundred would rave about you. As quoted by Danny O'Brien, "One person in every town in Britain likes your dumb online comic. That's enough to keep you in beers (or T-shirt sales) all year."

Others call this microcelebrity support micro-patronage, or distributed patronage.

In 1999 John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier published a model for this in First Monday, an online journal. They called it the Street Performer Protocol.

Using the logic of a street performer, the author goes directly to the readers before the book is published; perhaps even before the book is written. The author bypasses the publisher and makes a public statement on the order of: "When I get $100,000 in donations, I will release the next novel in this series."

Readers can go to the author's Web site, see how much money has already been donated, and donate money to the cause of getting his novel out. Note that the author doesn't care who pays to get the next chapter out; nor does he care how many people read the book that didn't pay for it. He just cares that his $100,000 pot gets filled. When it does, he publishes the next book. In this case "publish" simply means "make available," not "bind and distribute through bookstores." The book is made available, free of charge, to everyone: those who paid for it and those who did not.

In 2004 author Lawrence Watt-Evans used this model to publish his newest novel. He asked his True Fans to collectively pay $100 per month. When he got $100 he posted the next chapter of the novel. The entire book was published online for his True Fans, and then later in paper for all his fans. He is now writing a second novel this way. He gets by on an estimated 200 True Fans because he also publishes in the traditional manner -- with advances from a publisher supported by thousands of Lesser Fans. Other authors who use fans to directly support their work are Diane Duane, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, and Don Sakers. Game designer Greg Stolze employed a similar True Fan model to launch two pre-financed games. Fifty of his True Fans contributed seed money for his development costs.

The genius of the True Fan model is that the fans are able to move an artist away from the edges of the long tail to a degree larger than their numbers indicate. They can do this in three ways: by purchasing more per person, by spending directly so the creator keeps more per sale, and by enabling new models of support.

New models of support include micro-patronage. Another model is pre-financing the startup costs. Digital technology enables this fan support to take many shapes. Fundable is a web-based enterprise which allows anyone to raise a fixed amount of money for a project, while reassuring the backers the project will happen. Fundable withholds the money until the full amount is collected. They return the money if the minimum is not reached.

Fundable

Here's an example from Fundable's site;

Amelia, a twenty-year-old classical soprano singer, pre-sold her first CD before entering a recording studio. "If I get $400 in pre-orders, I will be able to afford the rest [of the studio costs]," she told potential contributors. Fundable's all-or-nothing model ensured that none of her customers would lose money if she fell short of her goal. Amelia sold over $940 in albums.

A thousand dollars won't keep even a starving artist alive long, but with serious attention, a dedicated artist can do better with their True Fans. Jill Sobule, a musician who has nurtured a sizable following over many years of touring and recording, is doing well relying on her True Fans. Recently she decided to go to her fans to finance the $75,000 professional recording fees she needed for her next album. She has raised close to $50,000 so far. By directly supporting her via their patronage, the fans gain intimacy with their artist. According to the Associated Press:

Contributors can choose a level of pledges ranging from the $10 "unpolished rock," which earns them a free digital download of her disc when it's made, to the $10,000 "weapons-grade plutonium level," where she promises "you get to come and sing on my CD. Don't worry if you can't sing - we can fix that on our end." For a $5,000 contribution, Sobule said she'll perform a concert in the donor's house. The lower levels are more popular, where donors can earn things like an advanced copy of the CD, a mention in the liner notes and a T-shirt identifying them as a "junior executive producer" of the CD.

The usual alternative to making a living based on True Fans is poverty. A study as recently as 1995 showed that the accepted price of being an artist was large. Sociologist Ruth Towse surveyed artists in Britian and determined that on average they earned below poverty subsistence levels.

I am suggesting there is a home for creatives in between poverty and stardom. Somewhere lower than stratospheric bestsellerdom, but higher than the obscurity of the long tail. I don't know the actual true number, but I think a dedicated artist could cultivate 1,000 True Fans, and by their direct support using new technology, make an honest living. I'd love to hear from anyone who might have settled on such a path.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

12 days of christmas: day one (gifts from flash)

cancer...thankfully, Carmel doesn't have it

it's been a pretty bumpy fall for us michigan mcdonalds...i'll say no more about all of that in general, but i will mention the most recent bump: carmel's cancer scare.

i'll also skip over the months of uncertainty, moments of fear, weeks of anxiety, and evenings of paranoia and jump straight to a scary-yet-perfectly-executed surgery followed by early-and-superlative news.

no cancer.

C-mac was very brave, very godly, and we're all very relieved that our christmas tree won't need to be decorated with pink ribbons this year.

more than ever, though, our hearts go out to those who will.


thanks be to god for his protection and security during all of this...it feels good to be on team jesus.