Categorybiographies 2.0

Thanks & Happy Holidays: That was 2012

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So that was the year – time for a brief look back at what happened, as I’ve been doing for the last few years. (This is the fifth year in a row – crazy, eh? Here are numbers one to four.)

So what happened? Lots and lots and lots, actually, and mostly good stuff, too.

Raygun Gothic Rocketship

Travel

Another year of crazy travel, both work-related and personal. Like many of you, this puts me in an odd position: I enjoy traveling tremendously, yet I’m haunted by the horrible carbon footprint I produce. I’ll need to find a way to get better at this, but have no idea yet how.

Mostly I organize and track my trips through Tripit, which is fantastic but has certain weaknesses on multi-stop trips, so I might be missing a couple here. Anyway, according to Tripit, and unfiltered, I went on 23 trips totaling 91 days and close to 66.000km, which brought me to 28 cities in 11 countries. Chronologically, this would looks something like this:

Bad Schandau & Bad Kreuznach & Bad Orb & Münster & Hamburg & Münster & Cologne & Bonn & Japan & Hamburg & Westerland & Dublin & Hamburg & San Francisco & Sebastopol & London & Osterstedt & Casekow & Istanbul & Hamburg & Kassel & Paris & Karlsruhe & Dublin & Tel Aviv & London & Zurich. And I’m about to leave for another trip to Boston & Karlsruhe to visit both our families as I’m writing this.

Some of these trips brought me, unsurprisingly, to conferences. So I got the chance to attend Republica, Next (as curator), Foo Camp, Open IoT Assembly, Digitale Selbstvermessung (as organizer), Tech Open Air, Next Service Design (as curator), DLD Tel Aviv, Dublin Web Summit, WIRED London, TED Salon London and Mozilla Festival. Among quite a few others. (Phew!)

Work

The trickiest part for me to sum up in a few sentences this year is certainly this section on about my work. For the first half year, I worked on lots of stuff at Third Wave, then left the company in late summer/fall to switch tracks. So I became a freelancer for the second time and am working on new stuff. One is that I’m serving as Program Director for Next Conference. (Disclosure: Next are clients.) At the same time, I have some other gigs going, and am working on something new. As of a few weeks ago, I’m also sharing an office with Matt, and we’ve been working on a few projects as well.

Not to try and be all mysterious here, but some things need honing before I feel comfortable talking about them, so give me some time before expecting any announcements.

Media

Had a few media appearances in (to me, at least) very unlikely outlets like Forbes, Fit For Fun and Apotheken Umschau (shown below, shooting iPhones out of my Android phone), as well as some radio interviews.

Apotheken Umschau Courtesy of Apotheken Umschau, I can now shoot phones out of my phone.

 

Speaking of media, I was (and still am) super excited to be part of the team behind The Alpine Review. It feels like in some small way this allows me to be part of something much bigger and very, very relevant.

The Alpine Review The Alpine Review

 

Friends and family

As these things go, it’s all good in the family. In fact, I’ll be meeting a big chunk of the new family for the first time in a few days, so that’s exciting. Otherwise nothing new to report. (Which is usually a good thing!)

Engaged!

Back in May, I asked the fantastic M. to marry me in front of Mount Fuji (and she said yes.) Am a happy man indeed. This was the view:

Fuji-san

Firsts!

Some things I believe I did the first time in 2012: Visited Japan. Got engaged. Bought a painting. Left a company I co-founded. Bought a really good office chair. (Chairman Bruce might be proud.) Took coding classes online. Installed a developer version of an operating system on a phone. Printed a flip book from an animated gif.

So what’s next?

First, I’m about to leave for a series of short trips to Boston and southern Germany to visits friends & family. Starting around mid-January, M. and I will be doing something that I used to do more regularly before and hadn’t been able to make happen as often recently: We’ll be moving to a city we both don’t know to work from there for a bit. Concretely, we’ll be living and working in Buenos Aires for a month. If you want to meet up or have any recommendations, please share (in the comments, on Twitter, or here.)

Happy Holidays

On that note, I got nothing more to say than Happy Holidays, I hope you have a great start in 2013. See you on the other side.

 

Former annual wrap-ups here.

Contextual mindsets

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News from Nowhere

 

Different contexts require different mindsets. Different phases of one’s life & career require different mindsets. For example, to make most out of university it helps to both be ready to study hard, and to be open-minded to allow for serendipitous experiences. To get most out of an internship, hard work and networking might be the thing to go for. Running your own company means getting into a mindset that puts the company first, and most other things to revolve around the company’s needs. As a freelancer, always be closing, and meeting people.

As I’m in a transitional phase right now, having left my company and preparing for the next gig, I’m trying to get into a different mindset yet again: As I’m working out what shape and focus my next gig is going to have, it’s key to allow myself to zoom out and unfocus, to allow for serendipity. (Which, frankly, feels both weird and wonderful.) At the same time, I have client work as well, so that takes a more structured approach.

Finding this new balance I realized how much a mindset is a matter of habit. There’s currently no rational reason for me to be working online 10 hours a day. Yet, for years not working on clear, productive output equalled “not working”, or rather “not doing what needs to be done”. Time to ditch that temporarily! New context requires new mindset: For clearly defined bursts, work towards efficient output and deliverables. At other times, maximize chances for serendipitous inputs, inspirations, conversations. Then, re-focus and channel all of this into a new productivity.

It’s a good place to be in.

 

The image is a photo of a part of News From Nowhere, Moon Kyungwon’s and Jeon Joonho’s fantastic piece at dOCUMENTA(13)

The last of the Zivis

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Today, the last of the Zivis finished their last day at work. Calling this The End of an Era wouldn’t be overstated: From 1973 to 2011 (today, actually), more than 2.7 million young men served in Germany. (More stats and history in German on Wikipedia.) Only instead of serving in the military, they worked at mostly social institutions like hospital, elder care homes and the like.

1999

I was just about 19 when I put in my year of Zivildienst, roughly from mid-1999 to mid-2000. It was certainly one the most transformative years of my life, potentially also one of the worst, and I’m sure I’d be a very different person today had I not learned what I learned there.

Memories of details are a bit blurry by now, but there are a few things I remember very clearly.

Zivildienst in the Black Forest

My Zivildienst was in a small Black Forest town at the local branch of a large social institution, and the Zivis were used in a variety of context. Shifts in an retirement home, driving both elder people around and disabled kids to school, helping people in need with their chores, as well as elder home care were all part of the tasks we had.

My role was largely as a driver, at least that was my initial assignment. That was good. Often, home care for old or disabled people was part of that deal. Not as fun, but I got to learn a lot, empathy not the least bit of it. Whenever there was trouble back at the HQ, I was placed on some nightshift or another in the retirement home, which I hated.

There was a lot of trouble.

First day

When you were drafted, some of your basic civic rights are revoked. No more freedom of movement (if you went on vacation, you had to let your superiors know), no more civil police (in case of job-related trouble like, say, you not showing up, it was the military police that would come get you). None of that goes down particularly well with a 19-year old. But it’s part of the deal, and I didn’t think much about it. If I did, I grumbled, but shrugged.

Alas, the moment I started my service I know there was trouble on the horizon. On my very first day – I had hardly been briefed on what my job would be – the phone in the common room rang. The same common room where I and the other 15 or so Zivis would hang out for a good deal of the rest of the year. I picked up the phone, because I was the only one around, not having a job yet and all. It was the boss, telling me to come see her at her office.

I went upstairs, expecting my first task or something. Instead, she was clearly in a bad mood and started talking to me, then yelling at me. It became clear that she was pissed off at some other Zivi, or all her Zivis in general, for not showing up at work, or screwing up in other ways.

Even today I remember that conversation quite clearly. I replied quietly, that it was my first day, and that I could not take responsibility for the actions of the others. That I hadn’t yet met them, even. She kept yelling. I distinctly remember replying, still quietly, another three or four times that I don’t see how I could help, but that I also didn’t see myself as the person to blame. After all, it was my first day.

Then, after another five minutes of being yelled at, I snapped. I still remember being very clear that moment, thinking that this is probably not a good idea and that I’d regret it. But I snapped anyway, and started yelling back.

That was the first day of my service, and it didn’t get much better than that.

Vodka, painkillers and a Playstation

I was lucky. I was a home sleeper since I lived nearby, so I had natural breaks where I got out of the context of this work, or rather that office. Others had to stay there, a year at a time. And I remember what it did to a number of my colleagues. People from all walks of life, and everybody coped differently. Some didn’t cope at all. One guy had resorted to painkillers and vodka as his daily routine. Most stuck to a slightly healthier mix of beer and long nights at the Playstation.

During the day, we’d all be in our social role: Taking care of people in need. It’s sometimes hard, often times even gross, where too many bodily fluids are involved. But it’s an enriching, maturing experience that I’m thankful to have made.

But once back the HQ, the mood was different. Morale was often low with a mix of tristesse, anger and desperation. Tristesse because of the routine. Anger about the boss, the unfair and intransparent treatment. And desperation about the lack of power to defend against the mobbing.

And it was mobbing, I see that even more clearly today than I did back then. Vacations were cancelled the day before they’d start on implausible pretexts, certain jobs used as sticks, others as carrots. Legal threats were nothing unusual, which in this context means the same as for soldiers: Jail time is comparatively easy to come by. When you’re hardly 20, you don’t want to take chances and bank on the real probabilities. It scares the shit out of you.

Just as an example, I remember one time where I had cleared a long weekend to go to an IT fair in another city. I was half-way through my service, and hadn’t managed to line up a spot at university, so I wanted to go look for a job. It was 1999, and IT jobs were incredibly attractive. All papers had been signed months in advance. The night before I was supposed to leave, I get a phone call.

I couldn’t go, the boss said. Why?, I asked. Too many people might be sick the next day to keep the service running, she told me. Had anyone called in sick, I asked, suddenly worried. No, not a single person had, she continued. Yet, you’re grounded. Your vacation’s done.

I remember going a few rounds with her, explaining to her how that was an important career thing for me, and pleaded for a while, but to no avail.

The next day, and I’m not proud of this, I called in sick. That didn’t help me though. It didn’t take long and she threatened me with the military police if I didn’t show up – either healthy, to work. Or sick, in which case I’d be forced to move into the HQ until I was back on my feet. She had called my bluff and made me face legal prosecution. I guess you could call it heavy handed management.

This was the kind of atmosphere that marked my service.

On the other hand, so did the camaraderie that sounds like a bit like a cliché, but is a strong bonding force. Throw 15 young guys into an intense shared experience and you get yourselfs some strong bonds, no matter if they last beyond the service or no.

Torn

So you’ll understand why I feel a bit torn about my personal Zivildienst experience.

And yet, I’ve always felt like a service of some sort to your country is a good thing that can strengthen democracy.

People should be able to choose between military and social service. It should be gender-balanced, and include 100% of the people of the respective age bracket. And you should probably get credits for school, or tax incentives, or something. But I think a service year can be a rich experience, and it can give young people a year to get their head straigth about what they want to do afterwards, while doing something societally useful, instead of internships in ad agencies.

As things stand, I’m not going to romanticize or miss the old service. However, if the government introduced a service like that, as a smarter, more balanced follow-up to the service that ended today, I think I’d approve of that. It’s not a bad thing at all. And social institutions across the country would benefit quite a bit.

Slides “Neue Medien – Fluch oder Segen”

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The other day I visited Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) for a day to give a keynote speech and a workshop for FES stipends at the summer academy. (Full disclosure: paid gig.) For completeness’ sake I’m posting the slides below. In order for them to make sense I’d recommend downloading the file from Slideshare so you can see the notes.

On a side note, I have to say I really enjoyed particularly the discussions with these students. We talked a lot about privacy on social networks and the implications of using these online services. I was surprised on more than one occasion: Not a lot of the participants use smartphones, which may be a budget thing given they’re all still studying. The crowd was much more critical of online social networking than I expected. (There was a strong split in the group, with those seeing chances rather than risks on one side and those highly critical of social networks on the other.)

Two things became very clear, though: (1) Just like German society overall this group had a significant part of online critics (with varying degrees of informed argumentation). (2) All of them are acutely – almost painfully – aware of the role of privacy and how it’s being affected by voluntary participation in online sharing behavior (social networking, Twitter etc), involuntary sharing (government involvement) and commercialization (all major actors are international corporations).

While I wished the overall discourse (on a societal level) about the complex issues of privacy/ownership/control of data online was based on a more informed basis, it’s very clear that we’ll be having this discussion for awhile to come. And that’s good: Keep thinking, discussing, debating. Just please make sure to stay away from panic and fear driven rhetoric as well as hyperbole. And if you happen to encounter such arguments, feel free to drop in some facts and see the fear go away.

Social Media Campaigns: My Facebook Is Mine

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Working with companies on their social media campaigns can pose a tricky dilemma for the consultants: on the one hand you’re hired because you know your way around the social media sphere, which of course you do because you’re very active there. On the other hand, you don’t want to abuse your personal social network for your clients. After all, who likes Tupperparty-style personal interactions?

So how much of your clients’ work should be mixed into your own social networks: Blog, Twitter, Facebook? I think we can all agree that full disclosure is the least all of us in the social media sphere need to do. (Here’s a list of my most relevant clients, and I’ll fully disclose wherever a conflict of interest may arise.) But that shouldn’t be all.

I’ve had situations where my business and private activity got mixed up. Partly that’s a good sign, as I often get hired to do stuff I love to do. At other times, there just wasn’t time to set up separate accounts. Sometimes, you forget to log out of your private account and into the campaigns account – it can happen. And frankly, it’s not the end of the world. After all, if I wouldn’t want to be associated with my clients, I wouldn’t work for them.

Still, it feels like all of us – together, or each of us individually – will need to negotiate best practices, guidelines, rules of thumb: Where do we draw the line? What’s ok, what’s annoying, what’s abuse of personal ties and friendships? How many invites to become fans of this new sneaker or that band or this party do we really want to find in our Facebook inbox? Using Overly abusing your personal friends for work will burn your social capital cost you friendships, and no job is worth that.

So here’s what I think I’ll go by, my personal rule of thumb:

  • Facebook: My Facebook is mine, and mine alone. I might decide to post stuff there if I personally care about them. But I won’t run another campaign inside my own Facebook – everything beyond setting up a Facebook page and handing it over is just too socially awkward.
  • Blog: I might blog my observations and thoughts on a campaign or project, mostly on a meta level.
  • Twitter: I might post a link to a project or campaign, with disclosure. The higher frequency of posts per day allows more liberal handling. Where possible, I’ll opt for setting up a dedicated Twitter account.

For all of these, I’m the only person to decide what I run in my personal outlets, how I run them, and what not to run. I won’t ever post anything a client or third party tries to pressure me into.

All of this is in flux, and will have to evolve over time, but it’s a start. And I’m very curious about your take on all this: How do you go about it?

NYC Open Office Trip

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I heart New YorkIn April/May I’ll spend a few weeks in New York. After all, what really makes a web freelancer’s life so good is the ability to work from wherever there’s an internet connection. So I’ll be working from NYC, and of course I’d love to meet up with as many of you in the tech and web scene as possible. If you happen to be located in the city, drop me a line (peter at thewavingcat.com) or get in touch via Twitter, and let’s meet up.

I’m not sure yet where I’ll be working from: My apartment, a coffee house, a co-working space? (Recommendations?) Taking a cue from the rockstars over at The Next Web, I tend towards doing something similar to their Open Office Trip. I love the idea of crashing at the office of cool web companies occasionally to get to know you, and get some work done. So if you have a spare desk, a chair and wifi for a day or two, you’re my hero.

Tom O’Reilly: Forget the PC, think mobile instead

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Over at O’Reilly Radar, Tim O’Reilly shared the story of a friend who realized the future is here. (Hint: It’s in your pocket.)

photo (c) jan chipchase (www.janchipchase.com) Image by Jan Chipchase

The story goes something like this: Vic was out for dinner with family and friends. The adults were on one side of the table, the kids on the other. The adults were debating some issue, and Vic said, in response to a question from one of his friends, “I don’t know.” His four-year old daughter Samantha, whom everyone knows as “Tiger,” piped up from the other side of the table: “Daddy, where’s your phone?” “What do you mean, where’s my phone?” She explained that she’d overheard the question. Why wasn’t he just looking up the answer on his phone? Out of the mouths of babes. Vic said that he realized in that moment that the era of the PC was over, and that the future belonged to cloud applications accessed via phones. […] [Until know I thought] about the web as experienced on a PC, and then about mobile as an add on. The tipping point has come; that notion has to flip: if we’re trying to get ahead of the curve, we need to think first about the phone, and then think about the PC browser experience as the add-on.

That’s a good, and incredibly important point. From what I see happening all around me, mobile is discussed a lot, and of course there’s a lot of (mostly smaller) service catering to iPhones and the like. But primarily the web is perceived as something you access from your laptop, or even desktop. What’s wrong about that? Simply what I emitted in Tim’s quote above, which is:

Kamla Bhatt was busting my chops about the same subject when I did an interview with her last week for Mint, the Indian business site. “Tim, you don’t talk enough about mobile!” she said. “In India and around the world, there is a whole new generation that accesses the internet, and they have never seen a PC. To them, it’s all on their phone.”

Emerging markets and all those areas in the world where PCs aren’t ubiquitous. In large parts of the world, cellphones are the way to go, now and in the future. PCs and laptops may never make it there, at least they won’t play the same role as they do in the richer industrialized countries.

A great read about the role of cellphones in developing countries can be found in the NYTimes: Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty? If there’s one person who does the really cool research in this area, it’s Jan Chipchase of Nokia, who’s also quoted extensively in this article. Jan goes to all those countries, cities, neighborhoods in less industrialized countries and checks out what people do with their phones, how they interact with them, which role those phones play in their professional and personal lives. It’s incredibly fascinating; and it’s clear that we should look much more into mobile than just developing more web services for 17/15/13 inch screens and full QWERTY keyboards. Instead, small screens, different input devices, location-based and context-based features are things we should be really looking into. Interested? For a good starter reading I recommend Jan Chipchase’s blog. No matter if you read it on your laptop or your cellphone.