A few weeks ago we kicked off SMToolbox's "Grilling the Gurus" series which features leading thinkers and doers of the social media space talking about the tools they use and the future they see for this industry. We started with Tagboard's Josh Decker, before meeting Canva's Guy Kawasaki earlier this week and now we'll get to know ThinkUp's Anil Dash.
Since you are reading this post on "the Internet(s)," I'm assuming that you've heard of Anil, but if you somehow haven't, the most important thing to know is that Anil was a "thought leader" before the term "thought leader" was in vogue. For years, Anil has been at the forefront of conversations about the intersection of tech and culture, garnering attention in leading outlets like The New York Times, or this month's Vanity Fair along the way.
His expertise is broad and his endeavors many, but Anil is perhaps most commonly known as one of the true pioneers of blogging. For 15 years, Anil has taken to Dashes to eloquently parse technology's status quo, while passionately advocating for its better future. Technology is only one component of his intellectual scope, but it's the most relevant one for the purposes of this post. Whether on Dashes or on Twitter, Anil is a thoughtful guy who is incredibly generous with his time and his intellect. You'll enjoy following him in any format.
Last week, I reviewed Anil's delightfully fun Twitter/Facebook insights tool, ThinkUp. Today, Anil sat down and answered 10 good questions about the present and future of ThinkUp, and the key trends worth watching in the social media space broadly.
Thanks to him for taking the time to talk social media with us here. With that, let's dive in....
1. For those who don't know your story, can you give a quick overview of your history in digital life generally and social media in particular?
My background started as a blogger. I've always been in tech, but I started blogging about 15 years ago, and through that came to connect with a lot of the people who made the earliest social networking and social media platforms. Since then, I've helped build those tools, and tried to spend a lot of time writing about what it means that all this technology is coming into our lives.
2. What's ThinkUp's origin story? How did it start and what problem was it trying to solve?
ThinkUp starts with my cofounder Gina Trapani; She had started the site Lifehacker, and wanted a way to better understand how well she was connecting with her audience on networks like Facebook and Twitter. She built the first version of what would become ThinkUp by herself, and I helped out a bit after that because we were friends, and after some time, we realized we had something really special on our hands and wanted to make it available for everyone.
3. Tell us a bit about what makes ThinkUp unique?
There are a lot of social media tools that do "analytics" or statistics. They'll give you lots of numbers about how you're performing, but they're designed for big brand marketing campaigns or to optimize commerce. We think there's a community of millions of people who care about how they use their social networks, and want to get better at it, but aren't just trying to sell something. For our audience, it's just as important whether people responded to what you said, or engaged with you, as it is to push a message out to them. And that's what makes ThinkUp different than even the statistics that Facebook or Twitter could offer themselves.
4. Who should use ThinkUp and how should they use your services?
The first group of people who should use ThinkUp is anybody that wants to get better at using their social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Given how much time we spend online on these sites and apps, that's a pretty significant group. And then second, is anybody with a large network -- more than a few hundred followers or friends. In that case, there probably aren't very many tools that help those people communicate better, and ThinkUp is great for that.
5. What's next for your organization? How are you innovating and evolving?
ThinkUp works by telling you little stories every day -- we call them "insights". And we have a list of insights that would take us years to build. There are just so many ways we want to help understand your activity online and give you perspective on it. So each day is about getting more and more of those stories in front of people, and diving deeper into the data. I think people will be really surprised what we can show them.
6. Take us inside your day-to-day at ThinkUp and beyond--what are you focused on?
Within ThinkUp, a typical day is brainstorming ideas for stories we want to tell in the app, thinking of how it would make people feel to see that data, and writing out ways to communicate about activity online that are both evocative and easy to understand. And we also spend a lot of time communicating out with our communities -- Gina hosts a couple of podcasts like This Week in Google where she's explaining tech news to a large audience, and I write on sites like Medium to try and offer perspectives on the industry as well.
7. When you think about the future of social media, what gets you excited?
The biggest potential in social media is to make networks and platforms that make people feel good and productive and effective about all the time they spend online. This will happen by reducing the abuse that so many experience online, by being more inclusive (both in the industry itself and in the user base) when building these tools, and by focusing on the emotional impact of using today's social networks. Really, what we have right now is so primitive compared to what's possible. That's exciting.
8. Our readers are social media hobbyists and/or professionals--any advice for how they can grow their careers in this field?
One of the biggest bits of advice I can offer, after more than 15 years of blogging and having written more than a million words and 75,000 tweets, is that consistency matters. Find a topic that you're irrationally, wildly passionate about and write about it every day for a month. Then stay on it at least once a week for a year. If you can do that, and stay curious and passionate about it, you'll be the world's expert on that topic by the end of the year.
9. I know you meet and interact with so many different people in the social media space--who are some people you particularly admire in this area that you and our readers can learn from?
First and foremost I'd have to point to my cofounder Gina Trapani. She's always been a model of smart, thoughtful use of social media. I'm inspired every day by danah boyd, the founder of the Data & Society Research Institute (where I'm on the board), who is doing really cutting-edge research on the way that real people are impacted by all these technologies. I think Feminista Jones has been extraordinary, organizing meaningful social change through efforts like the National Moment of Silence that start entirely on social networks but have huge impact in the real world. I love everything Jay Smooth has ever done in communicating about art and culture, and he's taught me so much about what these networks are good for.
10. Anything else you want to say to entertain or educate us?
I'd say the most important message we can have is to take our social networks seriously. There's often a desire in our culture to treat things that happen on Twitter or Facebook as trivial, or not "real life". But they're very real! And in respects that are much more important than just commerce or marketing, although those are obviously important, too. But we can use these technologies for civic, or social, or even moral and ethical, purposes and that should be very motivating for us all.